35th Session of WHO South-East Asia Advisory Committee on Health Research (SEA-ACHR)

24-26 October 2017, New Delhi, India

Distinguished members of the WHO South-East Asia ACHR, ladies and gentlemen,

Echoing what the Director CDS has emphasized, the value of scientific research to improve health is becoming more and more apparent. The development of antiretroviral therapy has made ending HIV, the worst global epidemic of our era, a reality.

New approaches to the treatment of cancer are emerging. And with the combination of scientific advances and local know-how in service delivery, we are seeing marked decline globally in morbidity and mortality among children under five.

The gains from research are most evident in the WHO South-East Asia Region. Guided by research, strategic innovations and interventions helped the Region achieve polio-free certification in 2014. The research done in our Region has contributed to the use of new polio vaccines globally, as well as to the polio endgame strategy to rid the world of all types of polio.

Newer therapies are substantially improving our ability to manage malaria and to prevent its further transmission. Improved diagnostic platforms are allowing us to detect the most difficult and dangerous tuberculosis cases. With a powerful and growing array of scientific tools at our disposal now, the Region has launched a reinvigorated effort to end HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. These goals, regarded far-fetched not long ago, are today within our reach.

Research has been the key to our greatest regional health triumphs, and will continue to be so to address some of the ongoing and emerging health challenges, to be able to reach the SDG goal of ensuring healthy lives and well-being for all people at all ages.

From the growing threat of noncommunicable diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, to the rise of antimicrobial resistance, the Region has many challenges. There is need for robust timely scientific research to generate critical answers and develop health tools to take on these challenges.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our ability to leverage scientific research to improve health in our Region is hobbled by several factors. An estimated only 10% of the global spending on health research focuses on conditions that account for 90% of the global health burden. Most scientific research is funded by high-income countries and hence, do not reflect the Region’s priorities. For example while tuberculosis is no longer a problem in the high-income countries that fund health research, TB continues to be a big public health challenge in WHO South-East Asia Region, home to more than one in three global TB cases.

Clearly, to obtain the much needed scientific advances to realize SDG 3, the Region needs to: -

First, invest more in health research. Though countries in our Region occupy center stage globally on economic and political matters, they lag behind in investment in health research. For example, Brazil’s per capita investment in health research is more than twice as much as in India, one of the leaders in health research in our Region. This is reflected in the body of scientific evidence generated to address priority health issues. Brazilian scientists produce nearly seven times more health-related scientific publications than those in Sri Lanka and nearly nine times more than those in India.

Secondly, our research needs to focus on and address the primary drivers of health. A recent review of scientific research in the Region found that health in general was under-prioritized and there was particular neglect of major sources of morbidity and mortality, including communicable diseases, noncommunicable diseases and traffic accidents. In a Region where poverty and social exclusion are at the root of many of our health problems, it is striking how little our research has focused on the social and structural determinants of health. The Region needs to reverse this neglect and give health research the priority it deserves.

Thirdly, we need to build our capacity and support strategic partnerships to undertake health research. We need to train a new generation of health researchers.

Lastly and most importantly, we need to build regional commitment to prioritize and focus resources on scientific research that will help address critical health challenges.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Advisory Committee on Health Research has been playing an important role in supporting the WHO Regional Office for promoting and coordinating health research.

Over the years the dimensions of research have changed considerably. Hence, the role and functions of ACHR also need to change to cater to the new demands and needs of our Member States in health research. In view of these changes, we have reviewed the existing framework of ACHR and would also like to hear from you. We have also developed a Regional Health Research Strategy with the aim to foster research in the Region. Based on global health research strategy of WHO, the regional strategy seeks to leverage the strengths of the Region to build a strong research system. It also seeks to define the role of SEARO in supporting enablers of health research, promoting research priorities and supporting translation of research into policies and practices.

We would need resources to implement this year’s ACHR recommendations and Health Research Strategy and, hence, I have invited various partners from around the globe for a two-day meeting, to identify areas of convergence and support.

At this 35th meeting, I look forward to ACHR identifying gaps as well critical health research priorities in the Region. This will help galvanize strategic research to give WHO South-East Asia the scientific tools and guidance it needs to achieve its health goals. Our regional health aspirations have never been greater, and your work has never been more important.

I wish you a productive meeting and a pleasant stay in New Delhi.

Thank you.