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Opinion, Opinion

Modern Challenges for Pacific Health Leaders

Modern Challenges for  Pacific Health Leaders
Minister for Health and Medical Services, Rosy Akbar
April 26
12:22 2017

The following is the address by the Minister for Health and Medical Services at the Pacific Heads of Health Meeting at Novotel Hotel, Suva Lami Bay yesterday. The meeting will take place from April 25 to 27.

Dr Audrey Aumua, Deputy Director-General, Secretariat of the Pacific Community

Dr Corinne Capuano, WHO representative for the South Pacific

Permanent Secretaries and directors-general

Representatives for international organisations and development partners

Other delegates

Guests

Ladies and gentlemen

Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all!

I am pleased to join you at this important meeting and to speak to you in my capacity both as Minister for Health and Medical Services in the Government of Fiji but also as the current Chair of the Pacific Health Ministers Meeting.

I would like to extend a special welcome to those of you who have travelled from elsewhere in the Pacific or further afield to join us here today.

On behalf of the Government of the Republic of Fiji and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services I am happy to have you with us for the next few days in our country and our capital city. I hope you can find some time in your busy schedule to visit downtown Suva and enjoy all it has to offer by way of shopping, sightseeing and sampling some of our uniquely Fijian cuisine (in moderation, of course).

It always gives me great pleasure to welcome our Pacific neighbours to Fiji. We have so much in common and yet we also retain and value those things that make each one of our countries and territories so special and unique.

We share many challenges but we address them in different ways. And that is why meetings such as this are so worthwhile.

They provide a valuable opportunity for you, as leaders in your respective health systems, to learn from each other and to take those learnings back, adapt then as necessary, and apply them for the benefit of your own communities.

Of course, as a Fijian, I cannot help but feel some degree of pride when I recall that Fiji was the birthplace of the Healthy Islands vision when Health Ministers met in 1995 on Yanuca Island, along the coast to the west of where we are today.

That vision has been instrumental in guiding the work of Health Ministers and Heads of Health for 22 years and remains as relevant today as it was when it was first defined.

The challenges that were identified at that first meeting of Pacific Health Ministers have proved to be enduring:-

  •  the predominant and growing burden of non-communicable diseases;
  •  the lingering burden of infectious diseases and the dangers of their re-emergence; and
  •  the need to support health systems so that they can cope with this double burden of communicable and non-communicable disease.

I am sure those challenges are no less significant for each of you now than they were for your predecessors in the closing years of the last century.

There can be no doubt that the epidemic of non-communicable disease that continues to impact on all our populations is one of the most serious threats to health in our region.

Despite significant investments of time and money, progress has been painfully slow.

Too many people in the Pacific are still eating unhealthy food, taking insufficient exercise, smoking and consuming harmful quantities of alcohol.

As a relative newcomer to the health sector – I have only been Minister for seven months – it frustrates me that our sustained efforts to tackle NCDs seem to yield relatively little by way of impact.

At the same time, I am only too aware that many of the factors that contribute to the growth of NCDs lie outside the health sector. I am pleased to say that more of my fellow Ministers are becoming aware of the part they need to play in tackling the factors that make it harder to be healthy.

And I am also proud that our President, His Excellency Major-General (ret’d) Jioji Konrote, serves in an honorary position as Fiji’s Champion in the Campaign Against NCDs – a role to which he is strongly committed and contributes enthusiastically.

While politicians like me obviously have an important role to play in the fight against NCDs we also look to you, as leaders of our health administrations and powerful voices in your own right, for guidance and insights into how best to tackle this issue.

I know you will devote a good amount time over the course of your meeting to discussing the issue of NCDs. As you do so, I hope you will be open to new ideas and innovations.

If I can be allowed just one criticism – and again, I speak as someone who is coming relatively fresh to these issues – it is that we seem to have countless strategies, commitments and plans which detail the causes and scale of the problem we face when it comes to NCDs but very little by way of practical solutions or ways of turning our many statements of intent into actions.

In the face of such a serious threat we should all be focused on finding what works and what doesn’t and sharing that knowledge in forums such as this.

The threat that NCDs pose to our communities was highlighted in the original Healthy Islands vision. It is interesting to note that Health Ministers, in 1995, also included ecological balance and healthy oceans as elements in their vision for the Pacific.

Like NCDs those are concerns that have become more prominent in our thinking since that time.

Fiji will, later this year, assume the Presidency of COP23, the 23rd twenty-third session of the Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

Our Prime Minister will also serve as Co-President of the UN Ocean Conference in June this year. Both those events offer unique opportunities for the countries and territories of the Pacific to highlight the very serious threats that climate change pose to our health and, in some case, our very existence.

It can no longer be denied that the Pacific is already being heavily impacted by the effects of global warming.

Many of the countries and territories represented here today have been affected.

To highlight just a handful of recent examples:-

ν Cyclone Pam wreaked havoc in Vanuatu and Tuvalu in 2015.

ν Winston – one of five severe tropical cyclones to hit our region in 2016 – was the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in the South Pacific in recorded history which devastated Fiji and caused great damage in Tonga.

ν More recently severe tropical cyclone Debbie affected Australia and New Zealand just last month while memories of Severe Tropical Cyclone Cook are still all too fresh in the minds of the people of New Caledonia while its aftermath also impacted on New Zealand.

And all the while, rising sea levels threaten water supplies, essential infrastructure and livelihoods in many of our island communities.

If the links between climate change and health were ever open to questioning they are now all too well-established.

I invite you all to take back to your countries the message that Fiji is leading the charge on behalf of the Pacific and the world with pride, energy and enthusiasm and I ask your Governments to support those efforts.

Finally, I ask you also to allow me to share with you just one more area where, as a newcomer to your world, I have grave concerns and that is the issue of antimicrobial resistance.

While we rightly focus on NCDs, the fact is, many of our recent achievements in tackling communicable diseases could be reversed by the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria.

Over the course of your meeting antimicrobial resistance should, I suggest, also feature prominently in your conversations. In 2015 Fiji became the first country in the Pacific to develop and launch a national plan for antimicrobial resistance.

One of my earliest public engagements after I took up the health portfolio last year was to help mark Antimicrobial Awareness Week.

That may help to explain why I continue to feel so strongly about the need to maintain our efforts to reduce the misuse and over-use of antibiotics.

To quote Dame Sally Davies, who is the Chief Medical Officer in England:-

Antimicrobial resistance is a ticking time-bomb … We need to work with everyone to ensure the apocalyptic scenario of widespread antimicrobial resistance does not become a reality.”

I invite you all to take heed of those words from a passionate advocate for antimicrobial awareness and reflect on what they might mean for the future challenges of communicable disease in our region.

The reality is that Fiji, along with the rest of our region, still grapples with the so-called ‘double-burden’ of communicable and non-communicable disease – and will continue to do so for some years to come. We cannot afford to let the very real threat of non-communicable disease distract us from the ongoing need to tackle communicable diseases.

Both pose real threats to our people, their livelihoods, our countries’ and territories’ economic growth and our ability to provide our citizens with a better quality of life.

Ladies and gentlemen, the work you will be doing over the next few days is of vital importance to our region and its people. Your agenda is full. You will be busy but I am sure your passion will sustain you.

I certainly look forward to hearing more about the outcomes of your deliberations and to discussing them with my fellow Ministers when we meet in Geneva next month and again in Rarotonga in August.

On that note, it now gives me great pleasure to declare this meeting open.

Vinaka vakalevu!

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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