Your Excellency Prime Minister, Honourable Ministers, Madam Director-General, Mr. Commissioner, Mr. Deputy Secretary-General, Regional Director, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Firstly, I would like to thank the Regional Committee for inviting me to take part in this, the 62nd Session of the Regional Committee for Europe of the World Health Organisation. As patron of the Regional Office for Europe, I am both pleased and honoured to once again have the opportunity to address such an important and influential group of health officials. Together you represent the 53 Member States of the European Region and as policymakers and experts; we look to you to meet the challenges and lead us in improving the health and well-being of each and every one of us living in this region.
I have been the Patron of the Regional Office since 2005 and in my first speech at a regional level in 2006 I said, ‘I am no expert’. And that is still the case. However, today I have a lot more experience and knowledge. My motivation for undertaking the role of patron was driven by my strong belief that health is our most precious possession and its protection and promotion is fundamental to the health and well-being of our societies. As patron, I believe my role is to support your work through advocacy and to raise awareness of health and health related issues.
Today, there are many health issues facing our Region, many of which you will discuss and debate in the coming days under the title: Health 2020. And there is much to discuss as good health underpins social and economic development.
With such an eminent group of health officials gathered in one room, I’ve decided to use this opportunity to briefly touch on three areas, where I have focused my efforts to help create change and improve health and well-being; immunisation, antimicrobial resistance and maternal and child health.
Apart from safe drinking water, no other health intervention has reduced diseases and mortality as effectively and safely as immunisation. Every year 3 million children are saved globally by taking vaccine shots. However, nearly 650,000 do not receive the three-dose series of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine by the age of one. Immunisation saves lives and it is indisputable that the cost of disease is much higher than the cost to prevent disease.
I have always expressed my strongest support to universal vaccination through the European Immunization Week, an effective and necessary initiative introduced by WHO. Thankfully, immunisation in the European Region is high and this is due to the member states in the Region strengthening their national immunisation programmes and the health systems that underpin them.
However, we cannot become complacent with regards to immunisation. Complacency leads to outbreaks. And over the past four years we have witnessed outbreaks of vaccine – preventable diseases in this Region. A continuous commitment is required and we need to ensure that the demand for vaccines remains high.
As a mother I want my children to be vaccinated against those diseases that can so easily be controlled. Prevention is by far better than cure. I believe that it is the wish of every mother that her child/children have every opportunity to grow up healthy. It is the right of every child to be immunised.
At a time and in a Region where most people can access vaccines we must continue to raise awareness about immunisation thereby ensuring high coverage.
It is because of your focus and continuous efforts that the Region this year can mark the 10th anniversary of receiving certification of ‘Polio Free’ status. This is a major public health achievement to celebrate and learn from as it clearly illustrates what we all know: high immunisation coverage controls the spread of disease.
Last year in discussion with the Regional Office I decided to be part of the efforts to meet the new challenge of Antimicrobial Resistance or AMR. AMR is a threat to the health and well-being of both humans and animals. As all of you know antibiotics are a miracle of modern science and most of us take for granted that we are able to treat infectious diseases. However, antibiotics have been misused and overused and now we are facing the consequences; the increased development of resistance to antimicrobials. It is a matter of great concern and a matter that requires greater attention and urgent action.
During its EU Presidency Denmark rightfully decided to make this issue one of its priorities and hosted a conference on fighting antimicrobial resistance. I had the pleasure of speaking at this conference together with the Director General Doctor Margaret Chan and Commissioner Dalli.
There was a clear message that came through from all speakers; we need to prescribe and use antibiotics responsibly (also in the animal population), we need to monitor and track antibiotic usage and resistance, and we need to promote the development of new antibiotic medicines.
As antimicrobial resistant bacteria do not respect country borders, it is important that all countries throughout the entire European Region work together to combat AMR. As I said at the Conference in Copenhagen, there is no doubt that we are witnessing an increasing number of bacteria becoming resistant, and as a result we are moving towards an era that could resemble the situation before penicillin was discovered – when people died of common bacterial infections. A frightening situation - we risk jeopardising one of the fundamental achievements that brought huge progress to public health.
Indeed my drive to help with promotion of immunisation also stems from the same conviction that we cannot allow this other major public health achievement to be put at risk. We all have a role to play: those who set the policy and strategies; those who subscribe, those who use; and those who produce, including industry to invest for further research – a role; in keeping antibiotics effective for use by future generations.
The importance of the Millennium Development Goals is indisputable. And the world’s commitment to achieving these goals is showing results. However, the one goal that is furthest from being reached is the one related to maternal health MDG 5. We know that women deliver for their children, their families, their communities and their country. Investing in women is key. And it is acknowledged that without achieving MDG5 none of the other MDGs will truly succeed.
So, it is difficult to understand, when we know what to do, why we are struggling to achieve this goal.
But, there is some good news in the European Region. The number of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth has fallen significantly in the past 3 decades. We are making important progress however; there are still significant discrepancies between countries and within countries.
Also in respect to children’s health we are making solid progress. In the European Region today, we have the lowest infant and child mortality rates in the world. But again, there exist large discrepancies between countries and within countries. In fact the estimated infant mortality rates in some countries are 25 times higher than in others. This discrepancy contributes to over 500 children dying every day before the age of five. This is unacceptable.
Over the past years, together with WHO, UNFPA and Maternity Worldwide I have been working to create awareness on global maternal health and child mortality issues, and women’s reproductive rights including access to family planning. I have travelled with NGO’s and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on various visits to countries greatly challenged by these issues.
It is obvious that there is a clear link between gender equality and women’s health. If women are empowered, they have greater opportunities for work, education and involvement in the development of their society. This is essential for sustainable development in developing countries.
Recently, I accepted to become a member of the High Level Task Force for International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). A Task Force established to combat maternal mortality and promote women’s reproductive health and rights as well as access to family planning. This Task Force will be officially launched in New York next month.
Later this year I will be travelling to Mozambique together with the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation and UNFPA to witness the country’s progress and the challenges they are facing in respect to these development goals. And actually, next week I will be visiting a project developed and supported by WHO in Brazil – a Human milk bank as a strategy for reducing neonatal mortality.
I’m fully committed to improving the health of women and children.
And I look forward to supporting your efforts in the Member states of the European Region in achieving this. We need to ensure that each and every women, each and every child have access to well performing health systems and good reproductive health services.
You should be proud of the positive trends and improvements in health in our Region. This is the result of your continued efforts and commitment to increase access to prevention and treatment for the people of your countries.
This 62nd session of the RC discusses a new framework for better health and well-being for all 53 countries in our Region: Health 2020. This is not the end of a process but the beginning of a renewed commitment not only from Ministries of Health but also governments and societies as a whole to work together to improve our health.
In closing, I would like to thank the Government of Malta as host of this Session. The beautiful and historic surroundings can only serve as inspiration and as the perfect backdrop for contemplation.
The days ahead will be challenging but with vision, clarity, courage and wisdom you can make the path toward the highest attainable standard of health - a fundamental right of every human being.