Gaps in health service coverage in the South-East Asia Region (SEAR) continue to exist despite progress.

WHO in Malé yesterday called on ministers of the 11 member countries of the region to revive and adapt primary health care services and monitor access inequalities to achieve the sustainable development goal (SDG) of health and well-being for all.

It stressed on the critical need for countries in the region to strengthen primary health care including the skills of frontline health workers, and to enhance monitoring of health services coverage and financial protection as they strive to achieve the SDG.

“At least 130 million people still lack access to one or more of seven essential health services, with access to care worse for the poor, those with less education and, to a lesser degree, those living in rural areas,” the press release states.

Regional Director for WHO SEAR, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, said there is an urgent need to revive and adapt frontline services and health workers to meet today’s needs, which can be done through ongoing training initiatives that equip health workers and health teams with the skills needed to address a range of health issues.

“Efforts to increase health worker retention, particularly in rural areas, is equally important,” she said. “Careful attention must be paid to the distribution of health workers’ skill-sets across the health system to ensure all communities, regardless of location, can access essential services.”

Dr Poonam said that by doing this, countries can accelerate public health gains, including by reducing maternal and child mortality and strengthening health security.

The countries can also tackle threatening challenges such as the increased burden of non-communicable diseases, she said. “Though efforts across the Region have been commendable, countries must strengthen their delivery of patient-centred, integrated care to drive further gains and ensure no one is left behind.”

Dr Poonam expressed WHO’s commitment to producing an annual report on progress towards universal health coverage and the health-related SDGs, which was a key agenda item at the 70th session of the RC.

The member countries endorsed the Malé Declaration on building health system resilience to climate change in the region during the ministerial roundtable on September 7.

After the signing of the Declaration, member countries committed to take effective and immediate action on building health systems able to anticipate, respond to, cope with, recover from and adapt to climate-related shocks and stress.

Dr Poonam said climate change is happening and is a risk to public health. “Whether from greater severity and intensity of extreme weather events, changes in the spread and abundance of disease-carrying vectors such as mosquitoes, or changes to the physical environment that cause displacement or threaten livelihoods, climate change is already having an impact on our region.”

The Declaration will be implemented through the Framework for Action in Building Health System Resilience to Climate Change in South Asia Region between 2017 and 2022.

Establishing and strengthening climate change and health information systems and research; integrating climate risks with national disaster risk management; enhancing health sector preparedness for climate-related events which includes securing essential services such as water and sanitation, waste management and electricity; and initiating the greening of the health sector by adopting environment-friendly technologies and using energy-efficient services are the core action points outlined in the Declaration.

“Building health systems resilience to climate change requires buy-in from all stakeholders,” Dr Poonam said. “The region is committed to supporting member countries as they strive to strengthen health systems to deal with climate change. We know what must be done. We can and must act now to meet the immense and increasing public health risks caused by climate change.”

Dechen Tshomo | Malé