“Health for Change” in the Americas: Welcoming PAHO’s New Director

 

By Raquel Corona-Parra

The Global Network is pleased to congratulate Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, the new director for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO). The Global Network is looking forward to working with Dr. Etienne during her five year term as director, which began on February 1, 2013.

During her inaugural address titled “Change in Health, Health for Change” given at PAHO headquarters in Washington, DC, Dr. Etienne emphasized that there is great opportunity for change in health in the Americas. Dr. Etienne highlighted how in recent years, there has been considerable economic growth and development in the region, along with improvements in health: infant mortality rates are dropping, life expectancy is rising and immunization records are improving. The region has had great success with eliminating smallpox, polio, measles and rubella.

However, there are still vast disparities in the region. “Poverty levels have declined over the past three decades. But today there are still more than 150 million people in our region living in poverty. At least half of those live in extreme poverty,” said Dr. Etienne.  She urged the global health community to focus on the most marginalized and vulnerable groups; to empower indigenous communities, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, women and children and older adults, so that they too can live healthy lives.

Dr. Etienne’s most proud accomplishment is leading her home country of Dominica to achieving universal access to health, and her  vision of the Americas is one where every person has access to universal health services, regardless of their economic situation.

Dr. Etienne also highlighted the progress made by endemic countries to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in the Americas. Considerable progress has been made in the fight against Chagas disease, and onchocerciasis was eliminated from Colombia in 2011, becoming the first nation in the region to do so. Other countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela, are on the verge of eliminating onchocerciasis.

However, other NTDs such as soil-transmitted helminth infections (including roundworm, whipworm and hookworm) make children sick and prevent them from going to school. The disparities in health in the region are still large and more work needs to be done. As Dr. Etienne explained, “We cannot choose between or among these diseases. Instead, we must make space in the regional agenda to combat all diseases that can impact mortality and reduce our quality of life.”

Dr. Etienne encouraged the global community to unite efforts to aid the most vulnerable groups. “While their needs are greatest, their voices often go unheard,” she said. Such collaboration is essential in the fight against NTDs. It is through the joint efforts of member states, non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental alliances and the private sector that we will be able to see the end of NTDs in the Americas and the world.

Dr. Etienne, a native of Dominica, was previously Assistant Director-General, Health Systems and Services, of WHO in Geneva. She was also the Assistant Director of PAHO from 2003 to 2008. Dr. Etienne replaced Dr. Mirta Roses Periago, of Argentina, who served as director for 10 years.

You can view Dr. Etienne’s full speech here.

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