Health of women and children highest priority

The leader of World Health Organization (WHO) Margaret Chan said in Canada on Monday that countries must make the health of women and children their highest priority.

Speaking at a luncheon in Gatineau, Quebec, Chan said that maternal and infant health is the most pressing public health issue in the world.

She made the remarks just hours after WHO announced Chan was the only candidate for the position on WHO director-general when Chan’s appointment expires next year.

An executive board meeting in Geneva between Jan. 16 and 23 will decide whether to put the name forward to the WHO Assembly in May, which would make the final decision regarding the appointment.

Chan, a former health chief in China’s Hong Kong, was elected director-general of the WHO in Nov. 2006.

Before her tenure with WHO, Chan was head of public health in Hong Kong, where she managed the city’s response to the world’s first outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus and an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Speaking in Gatineau, Chan, who earned her medical degree in Canada, said that she never expected to rise to such a lofty position.

“I just wanted to be a doctor. I just wanted to take care of women and children. When I was studying in Canada, I thought I would get married and have children. I never guessed I’d do anything like head the World Health Organization,” she said.

She said that she will continue to focus the WHO’s attention on mothers and young children.

Chan said that it’s difficult to know how many mothers and young children die of preventable diseases, since more than 80 countries don’t keep accurate death records, but she said that millions of children under five years of age are dying.

Millions more are growing up physically and mentally stunted because of poor nutrition and medical care, she added.

“Without proper nutrition, the stunting we are seeing is horrific,” she said. Unless babies have good food, including being breast-fed as infants, they grow up physically and mentally under-developed, Chan said.

“The first few years of a child’s life are make or break,” she said.

Chan and the WHO held a meeting of the Expert Panel on Maternal and Child Health in Canada from Nov. 18 to Nov. 21. The panel was established by the United Nations Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health Report. At the invitation of the WHO, the Commission was co-chaired by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the President of Tanzania, Dr. Jakaya Kikwete.

Chan says she’s hopeful funding from developed nations will continue to expand, despite the debt crisis facing many of them. The situation resembles the 1970s, with spikes in energy and food prices along with cuts to national budgets to restrain debt.

Chan said she is relieved the International Monetary Fund will not press for public health cuts in countries that are struggling with debt.

Beverley J. Oda, Minister of International Cooperation who is responsible for Canada’s official aid affairs, delivered remarks at the luncheon on improving the health of children and mothers locally and globally.

“I am particularly proud of the strong partnership between the WHO and Canada in advancing global health, and working towards improvements that will help us achieve our shared goals,” she said.

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