Speech by the Regional Director at the event to announce the Goodwill Ambassador for Hepatitis in South-East Asia Region

12 May 2017, Mumbai, India

Excellency, honorable guests, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome you to this function and thank you for your presence. The cause we have gathered for is an important one.

We are privileged to have Mr Bachchan with us today, and I look forward to the partnership we are embarking on.

Viral hepatitis threatens public health across our Region. Every year it infects millions of people, causing the death of around 410 000 – more than HIV and malaria combined. It is driving rates of liver cancer and cirrhosis, and is a substantial contributor to premature morbidity and mortality. As some of you may be aware, India is particularly burdened, accounting for around 60% of the Region’s hepatitis-related deaths.

In recent years, the resolve to tackle hepatitis – both globally and in South-East Asia – has crystallized. Hepatitis is explicitly mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals, which highlight the need to strengthen associated programmes. Hepatitis has been focused on at the World Health Assembly, leading to the endorsement last year of the Global Health Sector Strategy. And in the South-East Asia Region, hepatitis has been a priority area of work, with a regional strategy now adopted by all Member countries.

This is all very encouraging. We know that with the right policies, preventing, controlling and treating hepatitis is possible. Indeed, ending hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030, as per our targets, is an imperative that we can – and must – achieve.

Nevertheless, to forge the necessary progress, we must find ways to amplify the reach and efficiency of our interventions.

For example, it is estimated that just 10 percent of those infected with hepatitis know their status. Greater public awareness of the disease can overcome this deficit, and ensure every infected person can access the treatment they need.

Hepatitis B and C continue to be prevalent among high-risk groups such as intravenous drug users and sex workers. Greater understanding and uptake of harm reduction measures can limit the spread of hepatitis, and help keep vulnerable groups safe.

And millions of newborns continue to go without the hepatitis B birth dose, at times due to lack of awareness or fear of vaccination among parents. Greater buy-in for the birth dose can ensure that, where the vaccine is available, every child can access its life-saving benefits, as well as the two to three subsequent doses needed.

In each of these areas, and indeed, in many others, public communication, outreach and engagement is a powerful tool that can multiply programme efficiency and bring change to the lives of millions of people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

With this in mind, I am pleased to announce Mr Amitabh Bachchan as the WHO South-East Asia Region’s Goodwill Ambassador for Hepatitis.

As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr Bachchan has long used his star power for the greater good. Mr Bachchan is already the face of India’s hepatitis B vaccination campaign, and was a crucial voice in India’s successful battle against polio. He has participated in campaigns related to immunization, TB and diabetes, and has been a key advocate for the drive towards a clean India.

The power of Mr Bachchan’s voice is well established. WHO is excited to be partnering with him on this important public health issue. I take this opportunity to thank him for his enthusiasm and support.

Indeed, together we are committed to eliminating hepatitis as a public health threat. As I mentioned earlier, hepatitis has been one of WHO’s priority areas of work, with a Region-wide strategy developed and adopted by all Member countries. We are working with countries to adapt this policy to their needs, and to find solutions to a range of pressing issues.

We are working to strengthen infant immunization in all countries, and to make the birth dose available to all, including newborns delivered outside of institutional settings. We are facilitating collaboration across programmes, and harnessing the broadest possible expertise and action. We are supporting the scale up of testing and treatment, as well as ensuring access to affordable medicines. And we are convening and coordinating partners to ensure that our vision is consistent with our individual and collective actions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I once again express my gratitude to Mr Bachchan for joining us on our quest to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat. Mr Bachchan’s passion and drive will enhance the effectiveness of our programmes, and will bring greater awareness to this critical public health issue.

I have invited Mr Bachchan to WHO South-East Asia Region’s governing body meeting in Maldives in September, where Health Ministers from our Member States will together set the health agenda for the Region. We would benefit immensely from Mr Bachchan’s hepatitis-related advocacy.

I look very much forward to a productive, impactful partnership, and to achieving a Region in which hepatitis no longer threatens public health, and which is healthier, happier and more productive as a result.

Thank you very much.