Address by Hon. Nimal Siripala de Silva, Minister of Healthcare and Nutrition of Sri Lanka at the 59th World Health Assembly, Geneva – 23rd May, 2006

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Mr. President, Your Excellencies and distinguished delegates.

Mr President,
I extend our congratulations and best wishes to you and the Vice-Presidents of this Assembly.

On behalf of H.E. the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Government and people of Sri Lanka, I wish to extend our deepest condolences on the sudden passing away of Director General Dr. Lee Jong-wook. We extend our sincere condolences to the family of Dr. Lee and to the larger family of WHO in their moment of grief for a leader who brought effective management and a new vision to this organization. Sri Lanka will not forget Dr. Lee’s visit to Sri Lanka in the midst of our tsunami crisis to offer the support of WHO in our time of need.

During the past year, Sri Lanka continued the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the health sector, after the tragic events of the tsunami in 2004. I take this opportunity to thank the WHO, other UN Agencies, International Organizations, Governments and friends around the world who supported us in this hour of need.

Mr President, the Tsunami made us to realize that we had in place the fundamentals of a low cost, yet strong health system, and that we were able to rapidly restore basic health care to normalcy. We have used this tragedy as a springboard for transforming our health system to meet the needs of the next generation.

Mr. President, you are well aware that Sri Lanka has recorded impressive achievements in health, with relatively low levels of public expenditure, underlining our long standing commitment to broader social development, including free health and free education. In this regard we applaud WHO for establishing the Commission on Social Determinants of Health and Sri Lanka will participate actively and share the lessons from our long standing experiences.

We have been able to produce good health indicators, and effectively control communicable diseases some of which have reached elimination status. Though Sri Lanka is considered as a HIV low prevalent country, the risk factors to take it to epidemic proportions are visible within the country. Therefore we are eternally vigilant to prevent such an eventuality. We are also responding to mitigate the effects on those who are already afflicted. ART (Anti Retro Viral Treatment) is given free to the needy patients. Sri Lanka will be honoured to host the 8th International Aids Conference of Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in August 2007.

Having met many important challenges related to the MDGs, Sri Lanka is now focusing its attention on addressing the newly emerging and re-emerging diseases. Non communicable diseases are on the increase in Sri Lanka with changing life styles and due to the increase in life expectancy.

Mr. President, the external challenges are also daunting. The ever rising oil prices and the rapidly advancing technology, have a serious bearing on our economy which in turn has put the health services under tremendous strain. Yet, we have not compromised on the basic equity principles access to services and the quality of care.

The Government of the President His Excellency Mahinda Rajapakse considers health of the people as an investment rather than expenditure. Therefore the Government has committed to continue the delivery of free health care to people of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is proud to be one of the first countries to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and as a practical follow up we have just introduced a Tobacco and Alcohol Act that aims to minimize such ill effects on the people. The government has adopted a National Medicinal Drugs Policy, which incorporates most of the WHO recommendations on this subject. We look forward to the discussions on the report of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovations and Public Health at this Assembly.

The single most important contributory factor to the success of any health system is the quality of its health workforce. Sri Lanka is almost self sufficient in doctors, except medical specialists in certain disciplines like Psychiatry, Radiology and Pathology. The shortages in these disciplines are due to the brain drain frequently observed among developing countries. We are about to commence diploma training programmes in the above disciplines to overcome this shortage.

We have increased the intake of nurses, midwives and allied health professionals providing them with university-based education. Five thousand nurses per year are being recruited for training over the next three years. My government is helping other governments like Bhutan and Maldives in training some of their required health manpower.

Mr. President, Sri Lanka has long been adversely affected by the health “brain drain”, and many of our best qualified, doctors and nurses migrate to the developed world. I would like to emphasize to this august Assembly that we should collectively develop a Charter that will establish the principles for a more controlled movement of health personnel, and persuade the recipient countries to share some of our pains due to such migration. WHO is in the best position to negotiate such an agreement as it would bring considerable moral force. I would commend this to WHO for your kind consideration as a very practical project under this year’s theme of Working Together for Health.

After a protracted conflict we are now hoping for a prolonged period of tranquility in Sri Lanka; in fact I have the privilege of leading the government team in the peace negotiations held here in Geneva. We are in the process of rebuilding the health system in the previous conflict-prone areas, keeping in line with the “Mahinda Chintanaya”, the vision of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which stresses an honourable peace to the country and endorses the long cherished equity principle in development. Using this foundation, we are committed to drawing on health as a bridge for peace to deliver the benefits from the peace dividend to the people.

In conclusion, I wish to quote the most sacred leader of global peace Lord Buddha;
“Arogya parama labha
Santutti paraman dhanan“

Which means

Health is the ultimate gain
Joy is the ultimate wealth

Let us all work towards this.