Address by the Regional Director at the Regional workshop on elimination of cervical cancer in WHO South-East Asia Region

27-28 June 2019, New Delhi, India

Member State representatives, technical experts, partners, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

I wish you a very warm welcome.

It is a privilege to have you gathered – some of you for the second time this week – to address the Region’s cancer burden.

Unlike in the earlier meeting, our focus in the coming sessions will be highly specific, and will center on the elimination of cervical cancer.

The need to achieve that outcome is clear.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the Region.

Every year, nearly 160 000 women develop cervical cancer. Almost 100 000 women die from the disease.

While the Region’s incidence of cervical cancer is marginally disproportionate to global trends, its crude death rate is notably higher: The global rate is 6.9 per 100 000; the Region’s is 9.6.

This is despite cervical cancer being one of the most preventable and curable forms of cancer that exist.

The quest for change has been inspiring to witness.

It has also had substantial impact, reflecting the Region’s Flagship Priorities, WHO’s regional strategy to control cervical cancer, the Regional Vaccine Action Plan, and the Region’s multisectoral action plan for the prevention and control of NCDs.

Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand, for example, have introduced the HPV vaccine nationally.

Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal have carried out HPV vaccine pilot projects, as have a number of Indian states.

Each of the Region’s countries has initiated the screening and treatment of pre-cancers, while WHO has carried out capacity building workshops to enhance the impact of our health worker training packages.

The Regional Office continues to work across three departments to support Member States overcome several key barriers, which can be summarized as follows:

First, developing specific and sustainable policies, strategies and plans.

Second, gathering timely and reliable data.

Third, ensuring adequate resources and effective coordination.

And fourth, combating gender- and culture-specific barriers to access, as well as inadequate awareness of the risk of cervical cancer and the need to take preventive action.

The opportunity to overcome these barriers has never been stronger.

As you know, in May 2018 WHO Director-General Dr Tedros made an unprecedented global call to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem.

Pursuing that outcome was then identified as a priority in WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work, which notes its importance to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, and the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs.

The momentum continued.

Earlier this year, WHO’s Executive Board emphasized the need for decisive action, requesting the Director-General to work with Member States to develop a global strategy to present to the World Health Assembly in 2020.

The first draft of that strategy is what we have gathered to review. In coming sessions we will focus on how the elimination of cervical cancer should be defined, and what intermediate targets should be pursued.

You may be aware that the proposed targets are ambitious.

By 2030, 90% of girls are to be fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by 15 years of age.

70% of women are to be screened with a high-precision test at 35 and 45 years of age.

And 90% of women identified with cervical cancer are to receive treatment and care.

Though in most Member States the coverage of vaccination and screening programmes is at a very early stage, I firmly believe that each target is achievable. I urge you to adopt an ambitious though realistic mindset as we consider the draft.

Importantly, we will also discuss the content, timelines and next steps to be included in a regional acceleration plan, while building consensus on how best to integrate interventions across programmes.

These deliberations will be especially significant as the Region pursues its updated Flagship Priorities, fine-tunes operational planning, and looks ahead to implementing Programme Budget 2020-2021.

I urge you to make your voices heard and ensure that as we contribute to the global strategy we remain focused on our Region’s own unique challenges and priorities.

These include initiating and scaling up HPV vaccination and enhancing the coverage of screening, both of which are commensurate with our drive towards universal health coverage more generally.

Representatives, distinguished participants and partners,

The depth of knowledge, experience and expertise gathered for this meeting is remarkable.

So too is the conviction and resolve I know you share.

There is no question of our ability to drive path-breaking change.

But we cannot take our progress for granted.

Instead, over the coming two days we must apply ourselves as rigorously as possible, ensuring that our contribution to this landmark strategy is substantial, and that our work on the Region’s own acceleration plan moves ahead, as it must.

I thank you in advance for your contributions, diligence and hard work, and wish you an engaging and productive meeting.

Thank you.