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World Health Organization Western Pacific 68th Regional Committee Meeting

Minister for Health, Greg Hunt's opening address to the World Health Organization Western Pacific 68th Regional Committee Meeting on 9 October 2017.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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I want to start in welcoming everybody here today by acknowledging the immense pride we have in Indigenous Australia.

We saw with Nunukul Yagera the incredible cultural contribution of Aboriginal Australia and Torres Strait Islander Australia to what we are as a nation today, but it’s sporting, it’s increasingly economic, it’s academic, it’s journalism, it’s health, it’s all of the different areas of our national life that Indigenous Australia plays a part in.

But we do have a challenge, and one of the issues that we’ll discuss here this week is, of course, the task that each country has in bringing forward their traditional peoples, and in Australia, we still have a gap to close, and one of our great tasks is to end avoidable Indigenous blindness and deafness in our young people, and I think we see the light and the challenge with Nunukul Yagera here today.

I want to acknowledge Dr Shin, and Dr Shin, if Shin were translated into English from Hangul, that would translate as cyclonic energy with diplomatic panache.

So Dr Shin, you make us honoured and proud to have you here.

To our outgoing chair, and the way that Malaysia has conducted the chairing of the Western Pacific Regional Organisation of the WHO has been a model for us and it’s been calm hands but with, again, focused energy.

To all of our international ministers and secretaries and delegation leaders, and to the people from throughout the Western Pacific, to have you here today and this week is our privilege and our honour.

I want to begin by addressing the World Health Organization, then looking briefly at what we’re doing in Australia in relation to our own long-term national health system and some of our challenges and pathways forwards, and then to look at the regional cooperation which we’re seeking to collectively produce during this week of the 68th Western Pacific Regional Committee meeting.

Now, in terms of the World Health Organization, we have nearly 40 countries and regions and areas represented in this conference. We have more than 300 delegates.

Most importantly, we have 1.9 billion people from the region who are represented in this room on this day, and that weight of responsibility is something real and significant and important, and it’s something which has been carried forward through the work of the WHO and, in particular, the Western Pacific Regional Organisation.

That brings me to the values that are embodied in this room, and which, in particular, Dr Shin I want to acknowledge, through your time, in your role, you have brought to it, genuine cooperation, not just cooperation in name, but genuine cooperation and problem-focused outcomes. So, actually trying to change the way in which health services are delivered.

We talked about one of our own neighbours today, and the way in which there’s been an attempt to assist with on-the-ground practical health initiatives that Dr Shin himself has discussed with that country’s prime minister.

And so a fearless approach, but with respect, with cooperation, and ultimately, trying to achieve outcomes in such fundamental areas as tuberculosis and malaria and non-communicable diseases as we all battle the scourge of obesity and diabetes which flows from it.

That then brings me forward to a striking area of WHO success over recent decades, and that has been the global spread of successful vaccinations.

We know that each and every year, between two and three million lives, mostly young lives, lives with everything before them are saved through the spread of vaccination.

With the Pacific Island forum ministers today, we met and talked about further extension of vaccination, and the research which is being done in that area, but then above all else, the delivery of vaccination.

We know that through the WHO and through the related programs, 17 million lives in rubella and measles have been saved since 2000 in that area alone.

So there could not be anything more important that the regional cooperation and the global cooperation which the World Health Organization has brought over its life.

It is one of the shining examples of successful international collaboration and the international agencies through the United Nations system working together.

In our own country, we’ve tried to put forward and to bring forward many of the initiatives which the WHO has brought into being. We have a Long-Term National Health Plan in Australia, built around four principles, four pillars.

Firstly, universal access to doctors and nurses and medicines. Only this morning, our prime minister has announced in Sydney access for almost 1000 patients a year for a drug which will cost $460 million over the next four years, ibrutinib, to help treat patients with acute leukaemia and lymphoma.

Real access to something which would be beyond the reach of any but those who are most blessed economically.

So that is what we are trying to do in Australia through guaranteeing what we call Medicare and access to our pharmaceutical benefits, but only today delivering an outcome such as that.

And yesterday, announcing universal access for free, for every child, 12 and 13 in Australia, to Gardasil 9, a vaccine developed here in Brisbane by the great Professor Ian Frazer, and that vaccine will help in Australia with the avoidance of cervical cancer, but also many other cancers which come from the human papilloma virus.

So over the coming decades, we believe that around the world, this Brisbane-based development will save countless lives, and it’s our privilege to be, on our watch, able to gift that vaccine to the world and through an Australian development.

That then brings me to the second of our pillars, which is strengthening our hospital system. And here we have a mixed public and private system, just over 700 public hospitals, just under 700 private hospitals, and they work together, bound up with a mixture of universal care and private health insurance support.

The third of our areas is mental health, tomorrow is Mental Health Day, but I want to acknowledge it, we are launching a new online tool, Head to Health.

We will make that available to all of the smaller countries in the region who might be looking to develop new online tools.

It will obviously have to be adapted for each country, but I’m announcing that we will make the Head to Health program and software available without charge and with our assistance to adapt, as may be required or necessary for each of the smaller island states and in other states throughout the Western Pacific region.

It’s a global challenge, mental health. In Australia, there are 4 million Australians who face mental health challenges each year, and it’s a condition which has been under-recognized, and it’s our time and our watch and our commitment to elevate the importance of mental health and its treatment and its recognition and the de-stigmatization, not just here in Australia, but cooperatively throughout the region.

The fourth of our pillars here in Australia is medical research, and we are fortunate to be able to be progressing a Medical Research Future Fund at present, which will move towards the doubling of medical research funding here in Australia.

And whether it’s Gardasil or the Nanopatch, whether it is Venetoclax, which is a breakthrough, targeted therapy in cancer treatment which comes from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, this is a great Australian tradition.

But right now, we’re going through this process of the doubling of medical research funding, and that then brings me to the very things that we’re looking to do at the international level through this conference and through our regional cooperation.

Firstly, through the Medical Research Future Fund we’ll be investing $6 million, and I’m delighted to confirm today that we will be investing $6 million, in anti-microbial resistance work, to work with the Western Pacific and the Asia Pacific region.

It’s a global challenge and it’s a regional challenge to make sure that all of the benefits of anti-microbial work are not overwhelmed by the development of anti-microbial resistance, and so we will work with each of the member states and partners in this room on that.

In addition, we will be contributing $2 million to the work of pandemic and emergency preparedness through the Medical Research Future Fund.

But we’re able to go further. Only yesterday, our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia will be investing and supporting a $300 million international health security initiative focused on the Indo-Pacific region.

In particular within that, I’m delighted to announce that there will be $18 million through our Therapeutic Goods Administration to help regional countries who are going through the process of developing drugs, devices, and treatments for TB and malaria, to assist them in that process as it will be determined by each participating country on the basis of their needs, and there will be an additional $20 million to help in regional pandemic and health crisis preparedness and response.

I think it’s a really wonderful Australian initiative and it’s a great privilege to be able to confirm and to announce that that will be occurring.

Finally, there’s our direct cooperation with the World Health Organization. In a short while, Dr Shin and I will sign Australia’s first regional health security agreement, country-to-organization agreement, with the WHO, and that will include a review of our disaster and epidemic preparedness.

So we will be staging an epidemic preparedness run-through or program in the coming months. We’ll be taking the advice of the countries in this region and taking the advice of the WHO.

Together, we have great challenges that we face, but to think of the words of Mother Theresa who said, I can do things that you cannot do, you can do things that I cannot do, but together we can achieve great things which otherwise would never be done.

With that, I want to re-commit all of us to working together to achieve great things which otherwise would not be done in this week, and I am delighted to officially declare open the World Health Organization Western Pacific 68th Regional Committee Meeting.

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