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First Asian World Health Summit calls for whole-society action

12 April 2013

Prof Wong delivering his welcome address at the inaugural World Health Summit Regional Meeting Asia

PM Lee giving his opening speech at the conference
Ten years after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak that claimed more than 700 lives worldwide, a new strain of bird flu lethal to human is again rearing its head in Asia. Chronic non-communicable diseases such as hypertension are on the rise, affecting adults globally, leading to heart ailments, strokes and kidney failure.

These sobering facts are reminders that the world has to juggle the double burden of infectious and chronic diseases, with the need to provide equitable and affordable access to all, said President of the World Health Summit 2013 Professor John Wong Eu-Li, at the inaugural World Health Summit Regional Meeting Asia.

Hosted in Singapore from 8 to 10 April 2013 by NUS and MOH Holdings, the conference represented the first to be held in Asia. It gathered some 900 delegates from 46 countries - government, academia, industry, civic society and media - to address the complex issues in Asia's public health. The theme "Health for Sustainable Development in Asia" underscored the importance of pre-empting and dealing with health issues as a key factor in the continued dynamic growth in Asian economies. Four major areas discussed at the Regional Meeting were: the impact of health on Asian economies; innovations in health in Asia; financing healthcare; and emerging health threats in Asia.

Prof Wong, who is also NUS' Vice Provost (Academic Medicine) and Isabel Chan Professor in Medical Sciences, highlighted that Asia, home to half the world's population, will present tremendous healthcare challenges, including megacities, environmental hazards and burgeoning ageing societies.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 800,000 people in Asia Pacific die of tuberculosis every year, he said. Asia now contributes to almost half the cancer deaths globally, while three of four countries in the region have the highest users of tobacco in the world. Studies also show differences in the region's disease profile. For instance, a significant number of lung cancers in Asians happen in non-smokers due to a unique mutation; China and India have a high incidence of diabetes even in the absence of obesity. Thus, an urgent need exists for a cross-sectoral approach and multidisciplinary research to tap academic medicine and to involve societies, governments and industries.

Singapore's Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong, who officiated the opening ceremony, shared the country's healthcare experience in making services accessible, affordable and of high quality, as well as highlighted future challenges the world faces. He emphasised the need for sound policies and effective delivery across multiple areas, including preventive and public health; primary, secondary and tertiary care; traditional and complementary treatments.

Mr Lee noted that international cooperation is useful for sharing information and experiences, and conferences like the World Health Summit provided the platform for such discussions. He said: "By bringing this Summit to Asia, we can bring our collective wisdom to bear on the diverse challenges and opportunities we face in Asia."

After three days of intensive engagement and discourse where broad-ranging topics were explored, the Regional Meeting concluded with a call to action by leading scientists, researchers, academics, members of civil society and industry. The initiative issued by the M9 Alliance - a collaboration of academic institutions of educational and research committed to improving global health - asked governments to take a whole-of-society approach to formulating health policy based on the focus of the summit and the recognition that a healthy population provides the foundation for development, security, progress, social justice and economic stability.