WHO role is ‘for Tonga and the Pacific’, Dr Saia Piukala says

Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala (centre) Photo: WHOWPRO

By Iliesa Tora, of RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala, says he will be a servant of the region as he takes up his new posting in Manila.

Dr Piukala was confirmed in his new role by the WHO Executive Board on Tuesday.

He becomes the first Pacific islander to hold the position.

Addressing the WHO Executive Board Dr Piukala, who was Tonga’s Health Minister until he resigned two weeks ago, he said his appointment “is a moment of pride for Pacific people”.

“The enormity of this task is not lost on me, and I am deeply moved and honoured by the trust that Member States and Executive Board members have bestowed upon me,” he said.

Responding to RNZ Pacific on his appoinment, Dr Piukala said he is proud to be representing the Pacific at the WHO and the region.

“This is for Tonga and the Pacific. Maybe the time was right. God’s timing is always the right time,” he said.

Tongan Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni on the right with Tonga's Health Minister, Dr Saia Piukala.

Dr Piukala, left, Tonga’s Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Iliesa Tora

Dr Piukala said he was grateful for the opportunity he was given to serve the people of Tonga and now looks forward to serving the Western Pacific region in his new role.

He said the fact that he now stands amongst public health giants at the WHO after growing up as a barefoot boy running around the beaches of Vava’u Island is proof that no one is really left behind.

“And despite our different stories, we all have something to contribute,” he said.

He said he was looing forward working closely with WHO member states, the Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, regional directors and country offices.

“Let us work for a world where no barefoot child, looking out at a rising sea, needs to worry about what the future holds for his or her health and the health of their family,” he said.

Dr Ghebreyesus said his is looking forward to working with Dr Piukala to promote and protect the health of people across the region.

Regional visits and focus to kick start new role

Dr Piukala will be visiting some of the 37 countries and areas in the Western Pacific Region to kick start his role.

The visits will include meeting with governments and other stakeholders to discuss critical issues that impact health and explore areas for increased collaboration.

The WHO said under Dr Piukala’s leadership, it aims to strengthen health care in the Western Pacific by integrating efforts to achieve transformational primary health care and universal health coverage.

Focus will on addressing leading causes of disease and mortality in the region, including noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

NCDs, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and chronic respiratory illnesses, together account for nearly nine out of 10 deaths in the Region.

Dr Piukala will lead the regional team’s focus on healthy ageing and actions to address mental health and oral health, as well as maternal and child health, immunisation and communicable disease prevention and control, while also leveraging health technology to address inequities, including potential entry points for private sector engagement.

WHO said accelerating action on climate change, the environment and health is another major focus for Dr Piukala. His administration will review current initiatives and identify new opportunities to support country efforts.

“A cross-cutting, integrated strategy will be developed, and engagement with internal and external stakeholders intensified to enable new technical and diplomatic mechanisms for accelerating action on climate change and health,” WHO said.

“He will ensure strong support to countries and areas of the Western Pacific for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

This includes engagement in global processes underway to develop and ratify a new international “Pandemic Accord”, and make needed changes to the International Health Regulations.”

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