WHO ministerial roundtable meeting calls for a resilient health system 

Younten Tshedup  

Bhutan’s Covid-19 journey so far has been one of the most successful compared to most countries in the region and across the world.

A recent assessment conducted with support from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicated that there was ‘little or no effect’ of the pandemic on essential health services delivery in the country.

Representing Health Minister Dechen Wangmo during the ministerial roundtable virtual meeting at the 74th session of the WHO Regional Committee (RC) for South-East Asia yesterday, health secretary, Dr Pandup Tshering, said that as part of the overall Covid-19 response strategy, Bhutan had prioritised all essential health services in the country.

The pandemic, he said, have caused major disruption to essential health services threatening the decades-long progress achieved in improving maternal and child health, increasing immunisation coverage, and reducing communicable and non-communicable diseases, across the world.

Dr Pandup Tshering said that apart from stretching the health systems of many countries to a breaking point and beyond, the Covid-19 pandemic has also forced countries to make significant changes and adjustments to the delivery of essential health services particularly in the event of large and widespread community transmission.

He said: “Bhutan is no exception to it. Nevertheless, Bhutan has managed to successfully contain the pandemic by making the best use of the evolving science and evidence around the pandemic.”

To safeguard mainstream health facilities, the secretary said that flu clinics were established in early 2020, just as the threat from the pandemic was growing in the region. Flu clinics were later equipped with tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis facilities to enhance the detection of TB cases.

To minimise the incidence of flu-like illnesses, and to help narrow down the focus on Covid-19, Dr Pandup Tshering said that seasonal influenza vaccination was rolled out across the country, covering over 91 percent of the total eligible population by April 2020.

“To maintain our efforts towards eliminating cervical cancer and besides the HPV vaccination programme for girls, Bhutan rolled out HPV vaccination for boys,” he said, adding that over 97 percent of boys aged 12 years or those in Class VI were inoculated.

However, he added that although Bhutan had done considerably well given its demographic advantage, there was more to be achieved. He said that there was an urgent need to prioritise and enhance investments in the health workforce, health infrastructure, safe and timely access to medical supplies and in enhancing emergency preparedness.

Calling on the WHO, UN agencies and other international development and health partners, Dr Pandup Tshering said: “More than ever, we need to ensure that health systems are resilient and robust enough to respond to the unforeseen challenges of the future.”

He added: “It is time to look ahead and explore innovative ways and regather and strengthen efforts towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Universal Health Coverage (UHC) at all levels in the region and across the globe.”

A Ministerial Declaration was adopted at the end of the meeting yesterday to strengthen health system resilience and ensure health security and achieve UHC and SDGs in the health sector.

During the ministerial roundtable meeting, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, said that the pandemic has highlighted the urgency and importance of investment in human resources for health, especially at the primary health care level, and the need for an adequate supply of affordable and safe medical products to ensure an effective response to public health emergencies.