7th National Health Assembly of Thailand

Professor Yongyuth Yuthavong, Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour to be with you today and to address the National Health Assembly. Let me start by sincerely expressing my gratitude to the Royal Thai Government for giving me this opportunity.

Professor Yongyuth,

If I was asked to sum up what the world needs to know about health in Thailand it would go something like this:

Thailand is a country that is ahead of the curve. It is a country that is already putting into practice what others are only just beginning to preach. And it is a country that is getting results.

Universal Health Coverage, Health Technology Assessment, Health in all Policies, Health and Foreign Policyto name just a few examples of how Thailand has become a leader at the forefront of policy and practice in Global Health.

Take this National Health Assembly. I know of few other instances at a national level where the most important challenges facing the country are debated - with all key stakeholders present on an equal footing. Many countries talk about ownership and participation. Many people talk about the role of academia, of civil society, and the importance of engaging religious and other key communities.

We know that we need to understand the perspective of the frontline health worker and bring in colleagues from schools and workplaces if we are to promote healthy living.

But how many countries have actually done it?

Here, though, in this great venue, you are practicing what you say and doing it all for real. I congratulate you warmly.

May your now famous triangle continue to move the mountain.

Excellencies,

I understand that the theme of this year’s Assembly is - “Strengthening Solidarity: act together to reform for social well-being”.

I see you have also narrowed down the agenda to six key items using transparent criteria so that your discussions remain focused.

I only wish we could be half as disciplined in other fora!

Let me say, though, that the theme of solidarity is particularly appropriate as we approach 2015. Next year, the nations of the world will negotiate the final transition from the unfinished agenda of the MDGs, to a new generation of sustainable development goals.

I feel confident that health will have a prominent place in the new agenda - and I was pleased to see in the recent report of the UN Secretary-General on the post-2015 agenda, and I quote - “the agenda must address universal health care - coverage, access and affordability”. UHC is seen in the report as the overarching means to achieving the wide range of health goals that are then listed in the document.

I want to stress this last point. Universal Health Coverage promotes equity and is a key weapon in our joint fight against poverty.

It is the means by which the health sector can make real inroads into the challenge of communicable and noncommunicable diseases; of child, newborn and maternal health; and of the challenges that all societies face as their populations age.

Support for UHC is growing; this is good news. UHC can be a game changer. It is indeed one of the most powerful concepts in public health. But it must be more than just a mantra or a slogan.

It must be a practical expression of this assembly’s main theme: solidarity across society. And it is the way we deliver results.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a little less than a year since I became the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia.

Ours is a diverse and dynamic Region with strong bonds of friendship and a tradition of collaboration between Member States and between Member States and WHO. We have many successes that we can proudly celebrate - not least the fact that the region is polio free. But we face many challenges, and they are urgent:

• NCDs approach like a juggernaut, threatening communities, health systems and economies if we do not act now. We need action not just in the health sector, but across society. Health in all policies.

• Antibiotic resistance if not checked and soon, can return us to an era where we will be stripped of tools that today we take for granted. Again, this is not just a technical issue but an issue of governance - and policy coherence between health and agriculture.

• Expectations for better health are rising. Health has to be seen as a right for all, not a privilege for the few. Health equity must be a cornerstone of our policies: not tomorrow, but today. I am happy to see that Accelerating Equity post-2015 is the theme for the Prince Mahidol Award Conference later next month.

• Disasters, man-made and natural, something to which this Region is so prone, can destroy what we have worked so hard to build. We must not just expect the unexpected, we must have what it takes to do something about it, we need be prepared and fast.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

At this point, let me take a minute to talk about the continuing threat posed by Ebola.

A disease that we used to think occurred in small local outbreaks suddenly appears in countries where it is not readily recognized. Within a short time, it reaches the crowded cities of West Africa and starts to rage uncontrolled.

This disease has already killed over 7,000 people. Fear and distrust make the task of control even harder. The disruption of routine health care will claim even more victims. Education and economic activity come to a standstill. We see before our eyes the contract between states and their peoples breaking down.

We are seeing signs of progress, but the virus is still running ahead of us. Despite massive global efforts, it is proving to be extremely difficult to bring this outbreak under control.

The threat of exportation to one of the world’s mega cities - in a county where health systems are weak - is ever present.

Global solidarity with West Africa is strong and I want to publicly thank the Royal Thai Government for the generous contribution to the global efforts towards containing Ebola Virus Disease I also want to thank each the Thai people who contributed to the donation campaign coordinated by Thai Red Cross and the Ministry of Public Health of the Royal Thai Government.

The outbreak of Ebola highlights two key issues: no country is safe from an infectious disease given the global movement of people and second, no country can mount an effective response, even with outside help, if the basic health infrastructure and systems are not in place.

It is hard to talk about silver linings in a situation as devastating as that in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

But if we could name one, it would be that the world cannot ignore the importance of robust health systems. Without basic health infrastructure and solidarity for social well-being, societies are at risk of collapse.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Working together I want us to be champions for health in our countries and in the Region.

This Region has a quarter of the world’s population, but more than 40% of the global burden of disease.

Many countries invest less than 1% of their GDP in health and rely instead on high out of the pocket expenditure.

In others, costs are rising rapidly as we see in Thailand. As technology advances people’s expectations grow, and the cost of health care rises putting additional strain on the budget.

As the population ages, chronic and non-communicable diseases are going to exact a heavy toll on the health care system of this and other countries in the Region. Many countries, Thailand included, have large migrant populations for whom it is a challenge to provide health care services. Other countries are affected by conflict fueled by issues of ethnicity and religion. We have to remember that universal coverage means coverage for everyone, irrespective of their civil status. We have a big agenda ahead of us.

I am committed to making WHO more focused and better equipped to work with you. Spreading our efforts too thinly wastes scarce resources. We must therefore define where our Regional and Country Offices can really add value and make a genuine difference. This is how I understand reform.

Each country has its own health challenges. You will be discussing many of them at this assembly. But also let us not forget, that each country in our region plays a role in health outside its own borders. This may mean protecting people from the negative effects of policies in other sectors, as well as the impact of international trade and finance.

In this regard, I was happy to see that point 5 on your six point agenda is Thailand’s Global Health Policy.

There is much that other countries could learn from Thailand’s experience, and I look forward with great interest, not just to hearing about the outcome of the Assembly, but also to working closely with you as Thailand puts its new Global Health Policy into practice.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attention and wish the 7th National Health Assembly of Thailand every success in its deliberations.

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