Opening address by Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, at the 12th Pacific Health Ministers Meeting

His Excellency Prime Minister of Cook Islands, Henry Puna;
Director-General of the Pacific Community, Dr Colin Tukuitonga;
Honourable ministers of health and other distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen:

Kia Orana!

It is a great pleasure to be here with you at the 12th Pacific Health Ministers Meeting.

On behalf of the World Health Organization, I would like to thank the Government of Cook Islands for hosting us here in beautiful Rarotonga.

Twenty years ago Pacific health ministers gathered here in Rarotonga. It was only the second such meeting — and the first meeting since ministers adopted the vision of Healthy Islands.

Two years ago, you reaffirmed your commitment to this vision:

To strengthen leadership, governance and accountability.

To nurture children in body and mind.

To reduce avoidable disease and premature death.

And to promote ecological balance.

Today, I want to congratulate you on your achievements thus far.

In 2015, you recognized that monitoring and reporting on progress towards the Healthy Islands needed to be strengthened.

After two years of hard work, the Healthy Islands Monitoring Framework has now been developed. What was once a vision on the horizon is now a destination with a road map.

I congratulate all who have been involved in this work.

This framework will help to sustain gains in health – while work continues to address gaps in services, as Pacific island countries progress towards Universal Health Coverage.

As you know, Universal Health Coverage is the platform for achieving the health-related targets of the Sustainable Development Goals — a vision which shares much in common with the Healthy Islands vision.

Of course, getting there will not be easy. We all know the challenges.

To make real progress towards UHC, primary health care must be strengthened. Primary health care is the foundation for strengthening health services to achieve UHC.

Stronger primary health care services are also essential for responding to other challenges such as the rapidly rising burden of non-communicable disease – a particularly worrisome trend here in the Pacific.

We have seen good progress – for instance, in reducing tobacco use and improving physical activity levels in some countries and areas.

There has already been strong political recognition of the NCD crisis in the Pacific. I congratulate you on your leadership and firm commitment to addressing it. However, we need to do much more – especially to defuse impending crises such as the sharp increase in childhood obesity.

Building on your successes in tobacco control, we should redouble efforts to prevent industry interference and enforce existing legislation to address the all-important NCD risk factors.

On a beautiful day like today you almost forget how vulnerable these islands are to the rapid and unpredictable changes in climate and environment. For some Pacific islands, their very survival hangs in the balance.

We must prepare now for the impact of climate change on health and health systems in the Pacific – by building health systems that are resilient to climate change.

You know first-hand that extreme weather events have become more frequent and more damaging.

Look at the destruction Tropical Cyclone Donna caused in Vanuatu earlier this year. It was the strongest South Pacific cyclone ever recorded in the month of May.

Last year Tropical Cyclone Winston ravaged Fiji. The storm caused damages that amounted to about one fifth of the country's gross domestic product.

Once again, we saw how an extreme weather event can erase years of development gains in a matter of hours.

I hope that you will use this forum and others to draw attention to the disproportionate impact that climate change has in the Pacific.

Fiji’s Presidency of the 23rd session of the Conference of Parties – COP23 – of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in November presents another great opportunity.

The world needs to hear this message from your lips – you have so much at stake.

On the subject of health emergencies and disasters, we must also stay focused on the need to ensure Pacific health security.

Across the Region, we have made great progress in fulfilling the International Health Regulations core capacities. We have helped make Member States safer individually and collectively from outbreaks and health emergencies.

But challenges remain. We need to improve overall health system preparedness, for example, including helping prepare more health workers for the challenges of the future.

The Pacific Health Security Coordination Plan recognizes the importance of strong and resilient health systems. We look forward to working with countries and partners to put the plan into effect to strengthen health security.

Honourable Ministers, as you know, this will be my last Pacific Health Ministers meeting as WHO Regional Director.

It has been my great pleasure and privilege to attend the past four meetings, and to serve the Pacific.

Some of my best memories of my time as Regional Director come from the time I have spent with you in these beautiful islands.

I have been struck by your hospitality in dealing with outsiders — and your passion, dedication and determination in trying to improve the lives of your people.

I am humbled by the trust you have placed in me and WHO as a trusted partner in this work – and for the honour of being welcomed into the Pacific family.

No matter where I go and what I do, being named a puleleite will reign as one of my most cherished honours.

I will always carry a part of the Pacific in me. I will be with you in spirit as you journey towards the Healthy Islands vision – wishing you a future as bright and boundless as the Rarotonga sunset.

Thank you.