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ARTICLE : WHO South-East Asia Regional Organisation: A Drive to Improve Health and Change Lives
Monday, 30 September 2013 06:38

WHO South-East Asia Regional Organisation: A Drive to Improve Health and Change Lives

World Health Organisation South-East Asia Regional Organisation (WHO-SEARO) with the objective of ‘Highest possible level of health attainment by all people’ stands as an organisation with multiple achievements to its credit. SEARO, which is one of the six regional organisations of WHO has led to some remarkable achievements like the eradication of smallpox, improvement in life-expectancy, reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates, eradicating polio and guinea-worm disease as well as eliminating leprosy.

SEARO covers many health programmes like Antimicrobial resistance, Blood safety and Laboratory Technology, HIV/AIDS, Leprosy, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Vector Borne and Neglected Tropical diseases, Child and Adolescent health, Immunization and Vaccine development, Making Pregnancy Safer and Reproductive Health, Nutrition. The organisation also involved in health system development activities and sustainable development and healthy environmental programme.

The significance of the South East Asian Region lies in the fact that 1.79 billion people reside here, which forms 26.4% of the global population. The Region registers the lowest total expenditure on health which is about 3.8% of the GDP and is confronted with several health related issues despite the socio-economic progress. The high level of deaths due to diseases and the number of deaths due to non-communicable diseases (NCD) is on the rise and the occurrence of communicable diseases, in particular infectious diseases. The region has more than 27% of disease burden on NCDs.  Diseases like tuberculosis and malaria and the formidable challenges posed by HIV/AIDS add a new dimension to the health scenario of this Region.

WHO SEARO countries are working to overcome the challenges in the path of health achievement to the highest possible level. India’s work in this direction is commendable. In the recent SEARO Health Ministers Meeting held at New Delhi, the Health Minister of India Shri Ghulam Nabi Azad, said that India has been substantially bringing down the prices of medicines; a case in point being the dramatic reduction in costs of HIV/AIDS treatment. India is a hub of high quality, affordable drugs and is being called the “Pharmacy of the World”. ShriAzad said that India will be happy to share the experience of undertaking a series of path breaking reforms in the field of medical education and training because such exchange would result in this region becoming a global knowledge bank for health care.

WHO Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan commended the efforts of Indian Government in this direction. The Director General said that Indian Government and its Health Minister are fully dedicated to improving the health scenario of the country.


The South-East Asia Region of the World Health Organization was established in1948. It was the first of WHO’s six regional organisation. There are 11 Member States in the WHO South-East Asia Region- India (1948), Bangladesh (1972), Bhutan (1982), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1973), Indonesia (1950), Maldives (1965), Myanmar(1948), Nepal( 1953), Sri Lanka(1948), Thailand(1947), Timor-Leste(2002)

Headquarters of SEARO are in New Delhi, India. SEARO is headed by a Regional Director (RD) who is elected by the members of the SEARO countries. The Regional Director has a term of five years and, though elections are held, customarily, the RD gets a second term.

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh has been elected as the new Regional Director for WHO South-East Asia Region recently during the 31st Meeting of Health Ministers in New Delhi.

Important Functions of SEARO

In order to achieve its objective, the functions of the Organization are:

- To establish and maintain effective collaboration with the specialized agencies, governmental health administrations, professional groups and such other organizations as may be deemed appropriate.

- To assist Governments, upon request, in strengthening health services, furnish appropriate technical assistance and in emergencies, necessary aid upon the request or acceptance of Governments of this region.

- To stimulate and advance work to eradicate epidemic, endemic and other diseases.

- To promote in co-operation with other specialized agencies where necessary, the improvement of nutrition, housing, sanitation, recreation, economic or working conditions and other aspects of environmental hygiene.

- To promote co-operation among scientific and professional groups which contribute to the advancement of health.

- To propose conventions, agreements and regulations, and make recommendations with respect to international health matters and to perform such duties as may be assigned thereby to the Organization and are consistent with its objective.

- To study and report on, in co-operation with other specialized agencies where necessary, administrative and social techniques affecting public health and medical care from preventive and curative points of view, including hospital services and social security and provide information, counsel and assistance in the field of health.

Recent Developments

Recently India hosted the 31stMeeting of Ministers of Health of Countries of the WHO-SEARO and 66thSession of the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia at New Delhi. Important outcomes of this annual meeting are ‘New Delhi Declaration on High Blood Pressure’ and Election of Regional Director of WHO-SEARO.

The organisation showed its commitment to:

- Accord high priority to the prevention and control of high blood pressure and strive towards achieving the global voluntary targets and indicators for prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, included in the global monitoring framework and endorsed by the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly, including 25% relative reduction in the prevalence of hypertension by 2025.

- Provide leadership and promote active collaborations among key multi-sectoral stakeholders in society such as education, agriculture, finance, communications, trade, transport, urban planning, environment, sports and youth affairs, in order to create health promoting environments that empower individuals, families and communities to make healthy choices and lead healthy lives.

- Develop, strengthen and implement national multi-sectoral policies and action plans to promote physical activity and healthy diet, and reduce exposure to tobacco and harmful use of alcohol.

- Continue to implement the Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, of September 2011, as well as the WHO 2013–2020 Action Plan for the Global Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases with emphasis on: implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC); WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health; WHO Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol; and WHO Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children.

- implement national salt reduction strategies such as creating public awareness and health education through mass media, food labelling, and regulation of the food industry in order to reduce salt levels in processed food.

- Create healthy environments by adopting effective national legislation for 100% tobacco smoke-free environments in all indoor workplaces, public transport, indoor public places and other public places consistent with Article 8 (Protection from exposure to tobacco smoke) of the WHO FCTC; promoting access to healthy diet; providing opportunities for physical activity at workplaces, schools and other educational institutions as well as creating facilities for physical activity in public and private settings.

- Promote universal access to cost-effective prevention and treatment through generic medicines and care for integrated management of non-communicable diseases including hypertension through a primary health care approach.

- Strengthen health systems that support primary health care, to ensure an adequate and well-trained workforce, and the availability of affordable, safe, effective and quality medicines and technologies for prevention and control of major non-communicable diseases including hypertension.

- Promote access to cost-effective, affordable and quality medicines for all, including through the use, to the full, of the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement which provides flexibility for that purpose.

- Foster the development and transfer of technology to developing countries, on mutually agreed terms aligned with national priorities.

- Build and strengthen experience-sharing mechanisms among Member States for capacity building

- Strengthen national health information systems, for effective surveillance and monitoring of non-communicable diseases and their risk factors including hypertension, and to build national capacity for quality research and development

- Provide adequate and sustained resources through domestic and external channels, and explore innovative financing mechanisms for achieving universal health coverage for integrated prevention and control of non-communicable diseases including hypertension

During the meeting discussions were held on the Yogyakarta Declaration on Ageing and Health 2012 and the health in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, as the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals is approaching.

Apart from Ageing and Health, the recommendations by 31st Meeting of Health Ministers of SEARO  pertain to the implementation of International Health Regulations, Non-communicable diseases including mental health and neurological disorders; The role of WHO in managing emergencies; Health workforce training and education; Pandemic Influenza Preparedness ;and Challenges in polio eradication.

Some of the key issues discussed during the session of the WHO Regional Committee are: Universal health coverage (UHC), Targets for prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and Measles elimination & rubella control. Other Issues like WHO reforms and Programme Budget matters, Progress Report on Malaria and Progress Reports on selected Regional Committee resolutions were also deliberate upon during the meeting.

Over 70,700 children died of Measles in 11 countries of SEARO in 2011. The member states of the Region committed to eliminating Measles and controlling Rubella and congenital syndrome (CRS) by 2020.To achieve the goal of measles elimination and rubella control, the Governments will need to achieve and maintain 95% population immunity against these diseases within each district through routine immunization and/or supplementary campaigns. Countries will also need to develop and sustain a sensitive and timely case-based measles and rubella/CRS surveillance system. The regional network of accredited measles and rubella laboratories needs to be expanded and strengthened for achieving the target.

The New Delhi Declaration on High Blood Pressure was adopted by the Health Ministers in 31st Meeting of Ministers of Health of Countries of the WHO-SEARO and 66th Session of the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia in New Delhi. The Health Ministers committed to accord high priority to the prevention and control of high blood pressure and to strive towards measurable reduction in the prevalence of hypertension in the region by 2025. Hypertension is the leading risk factor for mortality worldwide, causing 9 million deaths each year. In South-East Asia, every third adult is affected by hypertension, with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. The poor are disproportionately affected by hypertension.

Speaking on the occasion, the Health & Family welfare Minister of India Shri Ghulam Nabi Azad said the Delhi Declaration on High Blood Pressure shall not only help in taking the national programme forward but also articulate the commitment of the Health Ministers of the South-East Asia region to the way-forward to control this disease and NCDs. The WHO, Director General, Dr Margaret Chan said that each year there are 9.4 million deaths due to heart disease and stroke. So, lifestyle changes and medicines are very important.

The South East Asian region has a number of constraints like lack of financial and human resources in many countries in the region. Several countries in the region are grappling with the lack of technology, infrastructure and an appropriate health policy framework. These obstacles pose a serious challenge to the promotion of public health, particularly in the context of achieving health-related Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Despite all these challenges and constraints the efforts of WHO SEARO are remarkable. There is no denying the fact that the World Health Organisation South-East Asia Regional Organisation (WHO-SEARO) is an important organisation playing a great role to eradicate all the challenges regarding health in the region.