Ministers of health from PAHO member countries will debate universal coverage and other regional health challenges during this week's 53rd Directing Council meeting

Washington, D.C., 29 September 2014 (PAHO/WHO) — High-level health officials from throughout the Americas today urged collective action by the region's countries to expand affordable access to health care and to address other hemispheric health challenges, on the first day of the 53rd Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The ministers of health and other high-level delegates—from North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean—are gathered at PAHO headquarters in Washington, D.C., for five days of discussions and decisions on issues including childhood obesity, blood safety, disabilities and rehabilitation, mental health, prevention of blindness and visual impairment, health-related law, coordination of humanitarian assistance, and universal access and universal health coverage.

PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne reminded delegates that many key public health achievements in the Americas have been made possible by the collective action of PAHO member countries.

"Our region is on track to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and congenital syphilis. More than 75% of people living with HIV in the Americas have access to antiretroviral treatment. Our region was the first to eradicate polio, smallpox, measles and congenital rubella syndrome," she said. "This region has always been, and will continue to be, a trail blazer as a result of your collective and committed leadership and your tireless hard work in improving the social conditions and health systems within your countries."

Etienne urged similar collaboration to advance universal access and universal health coverage, top agenda items for this week's meeting. "It is hoped that the decisions and resolutions that emanate from our discussions this week will result in major health benefits for all, and especially those people in most need."

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell agreed that "making sure that all people, across the region, have access to quality, affordable health insurance" is a "priority that we all share." She added, "Our health reform efforts in the United States were, and continue to be, influenced by lessons learned from other nations. We have much to learn from each other's successes, and from each other's challenges."

"Access to health is a decisive aspect of social inclusion," said José Miguel Insulza, Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), noting that "the big issue of social inclusion has become the center of the hemispheric agenda in recent years, as our nations have come to recognize that full democratic development of our continent is not possible if we maintain the levels of inequality, discrimination and exclusion that continue to affect numerous groups of citizens in our region."

During the opening session, Minister of Health of Ecuador Carina Vance announced that her country had become the second in the world, after Colombia, to be verified as having eliminated onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. PAHO, along with the Carter Center and other members of the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA), has provided support for the elimination of onchocerciasis in Ecuador and in five other endemic countries in the region for more than 20 years.

Also participating in today's session was Ferdinando Regalia, chief of the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, Deputy Director-General of WHO. Minister of Public Health and Social Welfare of the Dominican Republic Freddy Hidalgo was elected as president of the 53rd Directing Council, succeeding outgoing Council president Carina Vance of Ecuador.

Other highlights of this week's meeting will include a presentation by First Lady of Puerto Rico Wilma Jiménez Pastrana on obesity in children and adolescents, an expert panel on the role of health systems in addressing violence against women and children, and a roundtable discussion on the post-2015 development agenda.

In addition, the annual Awards for Excellence in Inter-American Public Health will be presented at a special event sponsored by PAHO, the PAHO Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tonight at the Organization of American States (OAS).

The PAHO Directing Council meets yearly—except for every fifth year, when the Pan American Sanitary Conference meets instead—to set the organization's policies and priorities. Delegates include health authorities from PAHO's 35 Member States and representatives of its four Associate Members, three Participating States, and two Observer States. In addition to setting mandates for PAHO's technical cooperation programs, the meeting also provides a forum for technical experts and government representatives to exchange information and debate regional health priorities.

PAHO, established in 1902, is the world's oldest international public health organization. It works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their peoples and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO). For more information visit:

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