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Outgoing WHO leader points to twin threats to public health

Fifty-ninth session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, 22-26 September, 2008, Manila, Philippines

MANILA, 23 September 2008—The outgoing head of the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Region today identified the need to strengthen health systems and to prepare for climate change as two of the gravest health challenges facing countries in the Asia Pacific region.

In his final address to the Regional Committee, WHO's governing body in the Western Pacific, Regional Director Dr Shigeru Omi said significant progress had been made on a number of health fronts, including the fight against communicable diseases. However, much work remains to be done on other issues.

On the subject of strengthening health systems, which includes tasks such as health care financing and building up human resources, Dr Omi acknowledged: “I must be honest. We have not been as successful in this area as we have with communicable diseases. More work needs to be done.” However, Dr Omi said he was confident a newly drafted plan for ramping up health systems in the Western Pacific would provide a solid foundation for progress.

As for the impact of climate change, which he described as part of the bigger issue of global health security, Dr Omi said that global warming would expand the range of mosquitos that carry malaria and dengue to areas other than their natural South-East Asia habitat. In addition, he said that some low-lying island states in the Pacific were at risk from rising ocean levels, while heat waves and droughts elsewhere were among the many factors contributing to the global food crisis.

In a wide-ranging valedictory address at the WHO Regional Office here to Health Ministers and senior officials from the 37 countries and areas that make up WHO's Western Pacific Region, Dr Omi, 59, outlined some of the areas where he said there had been genuine progress:

  • Tuberculosis: The number of daily deaths from TB in the Region has dropped from 1000 to 600 as a result of a non-stop battle against the disease.
  • Tobacco control: All countries in the Western Pacific have signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls for a war on smoking through such measures as higher taxes on cigarettes, a ban on advertising and more effective education campaigns.
  • HIV/AIDS: Significant strides have been made in providing universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care to those people living with HIV/AIDS and to groups at risk of infection.
  • Counterfeit drugs: The Western Pacific Region has introduced an innovative Internet-based reporting system for tracking the movement of fake drugs. This system has now been copied around the world.
  • Child health and maternal mortality: After being marginalized by the focus on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, the welfare of newborn infants and their mothers is now firmly back on the agenda with the development with UNICEF of a Regional Child Survival Strategy.
  • Measles: The Region is on track to achieve elimination of the disease by the target date of 2012, with a 97% fall in cases recorded between 2000 and 2007.

In an address that ranged across his 10 years in office, Dr Omi said that the most difficult decision he had been involved in was the issuing of travel advisories against a number of countries and areas at the height of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) threat in 2003.

“SARS awakened the global public health community from a kind of slumber,” Dr Omi said. “Before the outbreak, interest in communicable diseases had been slipping. Then suddenly, public health had entered a new era demanding constant vigilance against threats from emerging and re-emerging diseases. The emergence of avian influenza right on the heels of SARS served to emphasize that need for watchfulness," he said.

Dr Omi’s medical career began in the 1980s, when he was the sole doctor on a remote island off the east coast of Japan. In 1990, he joined WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office in Manila, Philippines, as Medical Officer for the Expanded Programme on Immunization. Dr Omi spearheaded a regional poliomyelitis eradication initiative in the Western Pacific Region. In 1995, he was promoted to the position of Director of the Division of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control, a post he held until 1998, when he was elected Regional Director. He took up that post in February 1999.

Requests to interview WHO experts on specific topics on the agenda can be arranged through Marilu Lingad at +63 918 918 1094 or e-mail: or Teena Nery at +63 2 528 9991 or e-mail:

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