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Ministers of health and other high-level delegates gather at PAHO headquarters for the 52nd session of the PAHO Directing Council

Washington, DC, 30 September 2013 (PAHO/WHO) — Health leaders from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and PAHO/WHO Member States expressed support for universal health coverage, on the opening day of the 52nd session of the PAHO Directing Council.

In her welcoming remarks, PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne told delegates from throughout the Americas that health is central to economic development, peace and security and that universal health coverage provides the best overarching framework for efforts by PAHO and its member countries to advance health.

"Our Member States are showing that universal health coverage is not only for the wealthiest countries. They are showing that it is within reach of countries throughout the Americas. Each country will take its own path to advance this goal, but we can all aspire to achieve it," she said.

The guidance and support from representatives of PAHO member countries at this week's meeting will be critical to health progress going forward, Etienne noted, adding that deliberations at the meeting "will direct development priorities and the flow of resources for decades to come. And how those resources flow will affect how the lives of people in our region will be shaped."

Also present for the opening session was WHO's Director-General Margaret Chan. She praised the countries of the Americas for their global leadership in public health and urged delegates to the Directing Council to ensure that the region continues to exercise such leadership as it advances toward universal health coverage.

"The Region of the Americas has long led the world in primary health care, and we expect the same leadership as countries of the world—at all levels of development—make the commitment to universal health coverage," said Chan. This includes ensuring protection for "the poorest of the poor," she said.

Chan also praised PAHO and its member countries for their leadership in fighting noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and in advancing tobacco control, which she termed "the most effective intervention—the best buy" against NCDs. She called on the delegates to stand with countries such as Uruguay, which are under attack by the tobacco industry for trying to implement tobacco control measures.

"No country where their leaders are standing up and taking action to protect their people's health should be stopped and sued. Do you agree with me," Chan said to a round of applause.

Nils Daulaire, assistant secretary for global affairs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said that universal health coverage is a "shared priority throughout the Americas."

"Here in the United States, President Obama's health-care law has put us on the cusp of reaching a major milestone in progressing toward that goal," he said. He noted that the new health insurance "exchanges" that become available this week under the law "will put health coverage within reach of millions of American citizens who do not have coverage."

Daulaire welcomed the region-wide consensus on universal health coverage as a shared priority. "Each nation will take its own path," he said, "but we have come together to promote equitable access to quality health care."

Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Social Sector Manager Héctor Salazar-Sánchez said the IDB would support the countries of the Americas in advancing universal health coverage as a framework for reducing health inequities, tackling NCDs, and addressing the persisting challenge of neglected tropical diseases.

"To overcome these pending challenges, the IDB will support countries in their commitment to advance toward universal access to health services and promote integrated strengthening of health systems, multi-sectoral work, and approaches based on the social and environmental determinants of health, while stimulating innovation and efficiency in the use of financial resources," said Salazar-Sánchez.

José Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), noted that the Region of the Americas is on track to meet the majority of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. "This is due, among other things, to the coordinated joint action of national, regional and international organizations," he said.

He cited the role of PAHO and the OAS in helping Haiti confront cholera and in the area of institutional strengthening. He also thanked PAHO for its contributions to the joint Report on the drug problem in the Americas, which concludes, among other things, that reducing drug consumption requires a public health approach. Insulza called on PAHO to continue working with the OAS in this area.

The PAHO Directing Council meets once a year, except in those years when the Pan American Sanitary Conference (PAHO's supreme governing authority) meets, to discuss regional health issues and to set PAHO's policies and priorities. Delegates to the meeting include the health authorities of PAHO's 35 Member States as well as representatives of its four Associate Members and two Observer States.

PAHO 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.

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Leticia Linn, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Tel. + 202 974 3440, Mobile +1 202 701 4005; Donna Eberwine-Villagran, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Tel. +1 202 974 3122, Mobile +1 202 316 5469, Sebastián Oliel, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Phone +1 202 974 3459, Mobile 202 316 5679. Knowledge Management and Communications, PAHO/WHO—www.paho.org