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Helen Clark

18 September, 2006

World Health Organisation, Western Pacific Regional Ctte

Opening Ceremony of the WHO Western Pacific Regional Committee

Aotea Centre

Distinguished representatives.

Ministers of Health and Heads of Delegation from the 37 countries and areas which make up the Western Pacific Region of the WHO.

Representatives of agencies of the United Nations, Intergovernmental and Nongovernmental Organisations.

The Secretariat of the World Health Organisation, from Geneva and Manila, of New Zealand NGOs.

Good morning everyone, and my warmest welcome to you all to New Zealand.

Particular greetings to my colleagues here on this stage:

·The Chair of the Western Pacific Regional Committee, Madame Marianne Devaux, and Member responsible for Health and the Disabled in the Government of New Caledonia

·Dr Anders Nordstrom, Acting Director-General of the World Health Organisation

·Dr Richard Nesbit, Acting Regional Director for the Western Pacific Region

·His Worship, the Mayor of Auckland, Dick Hubbard

·And my colleague the Honourable Pete Hodgson, Minister of Health for New Zealand.

Our government is delighted to be hosting this 57th Session of the World Health Organisation’s Regional Committee for the Western Pacific.

All participants are very welcome in New Zealand. I hope you will take time during your stay to enjoy the beauty of our country.

The population of your host city, Auckland, is diverse. More than 1.1 million people live here. They are drawn from many cultures.

Auckland has been the gateway for most new migrants who come to live in New Zealand.

Our city has the single largest Polynesian population of any city on earth.

In my remarks this morning I would like to focus on three particular health issues – pandemics, obesity, and tobacco, which the New Zealand Government is taking very seriously.

These three issues represent critical global challenges which we must meet head on.

These challenges cannot be addressed effectively by countries acting alone – or even regionally.

To meet these challenges we need effective multilateral institutions, and the WHO’s role is critical.

Communicable diseases, such as SARS and avian influenza, do not respect national borders. They have required rapid responses and unprecedented global health leadership. WHO has been at the forefront of leading the global response.

I applaud the adoption of the International Health Regulations by the World Health Assembly in May 2005. I note that the WHA agreed in May 2006 to move to voluntary compliance with the regulations, well in advance of the timetable for their ratification in 2007.

The International Health Regulations provide a framework through which we can all work in a concerted fashion to control fast moving infectious diseases.

WHO has a key role to play in co-ordinating communicable disease responses.

It is essential to note, however, that the major disease burden in the Western Pacific Region lies in the non-communicable diseases.

Over recent decades, we have witnessed the rapid and increasing growth of chronic non-communicable diseases – in developed and developing countries.

Effective responses to the spread of non-communicable diseases must involve players from many different sectors. The health sector alone cannot turn back the tide.

Obesity is a time bomb for New Zealand and the Pacific. I make no apology for stating this baldly.

It is posing huge challenges to our health systems, as we grapple with increasing rates of the associated diabetes, renal and eye disease, and joint problems. The scale of these consequential problems is likely to get worse before it gets better.

WHO has a critical role to play in establishing a comprehensive control programme for obesity, as has been done for tobacco.

You will be discussing obesity this week in your consideration of non-communicable diseases. I urge you to take the steps necessary to ensure that the issue of obesity is firmly on the WHO’s agenda.

My colleague Hon Pete Hodgson has a special event planned for Thursday lunchtime when our government will be launching new initiatives to fight obesity among children and young people. Ministers and other Heads of Delegation present here are invited to have a healthy lunch with an inspiring group of forty young people from New Zealand, and two young people each from Fiji and Tonga.

These young people themselves are taking action to lead healthier lives. They are leaders in their school communities and social groups. They are influencing their families, and challenging their parents to lead healthier lives, to eat more healthy foods, and to exercise regularly.

I hope you will find that their messages and their example provide useful lessons for your work at home in controlling and reducing obesity.

Tobacco control has been a passion of mine for many years. When I was Minister of Health in 1990, we passed New Zealand’s first major tobacco control legislation, providing for smoke free workplaces, and prohibiting advertising and sponsorship by tobacco companies. That legislation has continued to be tightened and improved over the years.

As New Zealand’s Minister of Health, I played a part in getting Tobacco on the WHA agenda in 1990. Resolutions passed at that time were important steps on the journey to adoption of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – the world’s first health-related treaty. I am delighted to see that so many countries have now ratified the Convention, especially in the Western Pacific Region.

I encourage all my fellow politicians in the audience to show leadership on tobacco control. Smoking causes utterly preventable death, disease, and disability. It cheats our people of the good health to which we all have a right. It is a scourge the world could do without.

Within the past two years, New Zealand has banned smoking in pubs, clubs, and bars.

Public support for that move continues to rise, and now stands at over eighty per cent. Even sixty three percent of smokers support the ban.

I believe that we in the developed countries should ensure that the progress we are making on tobacco control is also accompanied by support for developing countries to tackle the issue. As the developed world has tightened control on tobacco, so the tobacco corporates have increased their focus on developing country markets. The health consequences there will be as disastrous as in the developed world until this lethal drug is challenged head on.

I would like now to turn to the future challenges I see facing the World Health Organisation.

In an organisation of this size, covering every region in the world, there will be ongoing challenges to improve alignment between the country offices, regional offices, and world headquarters in Geneva.

We in New Zealand believe in the UN and the multilateral system. We are committed to modernising its institutions so that they are relevant to today’s problems and relevant to member states.

There have been and will continue to be adjustments to WHO’s ways of working to meet those objectives.

I understand that WHO is currently refocusing its many areas of work into fewer, but more potent, medium-term strategic objectives. That will allow for sharpened work programmes, and an ability to reprioritise in the face of changing issues.

I also understand that the WHO has new financial policies and regulations, as it works to put in place a more transparent and efficient global management system.

These changes are essential when there are so many competing demands on resources. We all need to demonstrate to those who fund us that we are delivering the best outcomes possible and that we give value for money.

This meeting of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific brings together nations from the size of Niue, with its 1,400 or so inhabitants, to that of China with well over 1 billion people. Yet whatever our size, we can and must work together on health issues which confront us all.

Our regional health networks are important, and there is warmth and rapport in this regional family. Many participants here know each other very well because you have attended these meetings regularly over a number of years.

Many also meet regularly at Pacific Health Ministers’ meetings, in ASEAN, APEC, and OECD meetings on health issues, at the World Health Assembly, and through the Pacific Health Senior Officials’ network.

The relationships you have built of trust, respect, friendship, collegiality, and mutual interest in health will underpin the discussions at this meeting, as you work together on solutions to the challenges we all face.

New Zealand has had a long history of association with the Western Pacific Region of the WHO. We have hosted previous Committee meetings, in Wellington in 1961, and again in 1973 – 33 years ago.

Today marks a significant further step in our relationship with the WHO. We hope it will not be another 33 years before we host this regional meeting again !

The workload and agenda facing you in the next five days is considerable.

I wish you well in your deliberations as you work to translate the decisions made in the World Health Assembly into practical actions and responses which will be effective for this region.

I look forward to the report that our Minister of Health will give our government on the outcome of this meeting.

Enjoy the conference.

  • Helen Clark
  • Prime Minister