WHO bracing for health challenges in Asia-Pacific

September 26th, 2008 - 10:34 am ICT by IANS  

Manila, Sep 26 (DPA) The World Health Organization (WHO) is bracing for major health challenges in Asia and the Pacific ranging from the continuing scourge of tuberculosis to emerging health security concerns brought about by climate change and globalization.Shigeru Omi, outgoing regional director of WHO’s Western Pacific Office, said that while the region has done well in addressing health threats and concerns during the past decade, the challenges ahead remained daunting.

He cited the unfinished battle with tuberculosis, malaria, dengue and HIV, which continue to afflict millions of people in the region.

“We have many challenges in the years to come,” he said at the start of a five-day meeting of the WHO Regional Committee in Manila this week.

“In addition to the unfinished agenda of communicable and noncommunicable diseases, I think this region has two main challenges: One is health system development, and the other is global health security,” he said.

Those challenges somewhat eclipsed WHO’s more notable achievements in the Asia-Pacific during the past decade, which included the near-eradication of polio.

WHO data showed that the region’s last indigenous polio case - a 15-month-old Cambodian girl - was reported in March 1997.

The region was also on track to achieve the elimination of measles by 2012, with a 97-per-ent fall in cases recorded from 2000 to 2007.

Omi, 59, who steered the regional WHO office for the past 10 years, conceded that his office had not been as successful in strengthening health systems in the region.

“More work has to be done,” he told delegates.

Omi stressed the need to strengthen human resources in the health sector and improve the health finance systems in member countries to effectively address traditional as well as emerging diseases and other health-related challenges.

WHO records showed an upsurge in dengue fever in the region to 221,860 cases in 2007 from a low of 46,662 cases seven years earlier.

The UN’s world health body also noted that while malaria cases have declined 40 per cent since 1992, global warming could reverse the trend and lead to an upsurge.

It also pointed out that much work must be done to deal with tuberculosis, which afflicts 3.5 million people in the region and claims more than 350,000 lives each year.

HIV infections remained a major health threat in the region with an estimated 1.3 million people living with the disease, WHO said. About 150,000 new infections and 63,000 AIDS-related deaths were recorded last year, it added.

Aside from diseases, the region also faces serious challenges related to food safety, Omi said.

He said there is a serious need to improve food safety control mechanisms amid a steady rise in the international trade of food brought about by globalization.

Omi noted that the recent scandal over melamine-contaminated baby formula in China, which has killed four babies and afflicted at least 53,000, underscored the need for more rigid food safety regulation.

“All countries are vulnerable,” he said. “Just like viruses, these products do not recognize national boundaries.”

South Korean medical expert Shin Young Soo, who is set to replace Omi in February, said the next five years “are of critical importance for WHO and member states.”

“The threat of emerging health problems and challenges remains imminent,” he said, “but challenge is the other side of opportunity.”

Shin cited the increasing attention and importance given to health issues by world leaders and international organizations as evidenced by this year’s summit declaration by the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, which committed $60 billion to boost health programmes.

Shin, 64, promised to provide strong leadership, continue reforms and reinvent WHO to make the organization more responsive in meeting the challenges ahead.

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