Acceptance Speech of Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh at the 134th Session of the WHO Executive Board

21 January 2014, Geneva, Switzerland

Hon’ble Chairperson, distinguished Members of the Executive Board, Excellencies, Regional Directors, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen.

This is a moment of great honour for me. I would like to thank the Member States of the South-East Asia Region and the Executive Board of WHO for trusting me to lead one of the most dynamic regions of WHO in such exigent times. I take up my new position in all humility, fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

I have been extremely fortunate in being able to pursue my passion for public health through both advanced educational training and my professional career. It started in 1975 when i joined the Indian Administrative Service, an institution in the Government of India responsible for the governance of one-fifth of the world’s population. For over two decades I formulated policy and developed and implemented strategies for health systems, medical education, finance and human resources. It gave me the opportunity of becoming the Health Secretary of Punjab, a State with a population of 22 million and a health budget of 350 million dollars. After three years with the Health Population and Nutrition Department of the World Bank, I joined Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland’s cabinet in 1998 as Executive Director, Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments in WHO Geneva and, subsequently I moved to SEARO as the Deputy Regional Director till I retired in February last year. I have since been Advisor International Health to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.

I have had the honour of working with our Member States in SEAR for over a decade. Together, we have worked as a team to overcome extreme challenges and celebrated well deserved victories.

I remember the Tsunami in 2004 which was one of the worst natural disasters in the Region. From SEARO we coordinated a multi-country rapid response bringing resources from Geneva, other Regions as well as our partners. Together we contained the health impact of the disaster and have subsequently supported the reconstruction of the health system. The following year brought reward in the form of the establishment of SEARHEF, the South East Asia Region Health Emergency Fund, the first of its kind in WHO which has been instrumental in strengthening country response to natural disasters and emergencies. We benefited from this enhanced capacity during the Yogyakarta earthquake in Indonesia, the floods in DPRK and cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

Through the decade, we have learnt from Thailand’s path to universal health coverage. We have also impressive lessons from Timor Leste’s post-conflict progress in reconstructing its health systems. Bangladesh and Nepal have received international acknowledgement for achievements in MDG 4 and 5. Maldives continues to be malaria free. Bhutan has garnered international support for health and wellbeing as a true measure of development and we have taken this forward from the Region in the post-2015 debate. India`s landmark achievement in becoming Polio Free is a historical milestone and the Region looks forward to the certification of Polio Eradication in March this year.

Significant health challenges in the Region however, remain and are, in fact, increasing as the essential nature of public health continues to evolve. Late last year, I had the privilege of visiting several of our Member States, meeting Ministers of Health, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, eminent public health experts, social scientists and health economists. We agreed that the Region is undergoing unprecedented demographic, epidemiological, economic and social transition and requires a bold strategy to address the unfinished agenda of MDG 4, 5 and 6, non communicable diseases, health systems and emergencies, with a strong SEARO at the helm.

We are already witnessing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and strokes striking not just more rapidly but also disproportionately in the countries of our Region. Alarmingly, this is a trend across all income groups and more worrisome among the young. These long term chronic problems call for a new type of care and a new type of care giver, increasing cost of care, where out-of-pocket health spending is a key driver of inequities and impoverishment. The cause and impact of NCDs encapsulate the increasingly complex influences on the health of our population, further stretching our already weak health systems.

Technology has brought us to the threshold of universal health coverage and, yet, we are a long way from achieving it. On the one hand we are able to transplant hearts and kidneys, but on the other we are still not able to persuade people to do what is necessary to prevent diseases. We thought we had TB and malaria beaten but it is now coming back and in new more complex forms of drug resistance and co infections. We have at our disposal extraordinary vaccines to eliminate childhood diseases but we are unable to reach all the children who are so desperately in need for it. Climate-change related natural disasters and health emergencies are on the rise. The multiple and multi-sectoral influences underlying these challenges require us to urgently mobilize the extraordinary opportunities of new health partnerships. We need to garner and consolidate support from all health-related sectors and partners in what I believe, must and can be a new era of universal development of health.

At a time when countries need WHO most, WHO must, simultaneously, undergo wide-ranging Organization reforms. In the words of our Director General, we must build our Organization to be more effective, efficient, responsive, objective, accountable and transparent. These are critical times in the evolution of this great organization and, we must be guided, above all else by the needs of our constituents. This is our core mandate and, together with Member States, we must define and deliver on country priorities.

And, for this, it is imperative that we recognise the need to join hands within WHO across the three levels of the Organization. The South-East Asia Region has some of the best public health experts, state of the art medical facilities, frontline centres of excellence and a leading pharmaceutical industry that is already improving the health of populations within and beyond the Region. There is significant potential here to make further contributions to global health and an important opportunity for WHO’s collaboration. I am steadfast in my resolve to bring change, to explore new avenues and to build partnerships for a technically sound, committed and dynamic effort to meet each and every public health challenge in South-East Asia.

In so doing, I am cognizant of the advice of the Honourable Minister of Health, Government of India, who after my nomination reminded me that I must lead the Region without fear or favour.

During my 15 years in WHO, I have had the good fortune of working with many experts whose experiences and insights deeply enrich my professional reportoire. My sincere thanks to them, specially my predecessor Dr Samlee with the assurance that the knowledge I gained from them shall be used in addressing the numerous challenges the Region faces.

Distinguished Chair, Excellencies, Members of the Executive Board, Director General, Regional Directors.

I look forward to your support to rapidly and substantially improve the health of the population of the South-East Asia and beyond.

Thank you.