Funafuti/Suva, 24 March 2022

Working together to meet both current and future health needs was a key focus of this week’s 14th Pacific Health Ministers Meeting. Ministers acknowledged the major challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also recognized that it was the perfect moment to be making advances in health.

“This meeting has been an opportunity to discuss how we can use the support that is currently available during the pandemic for maximum impact,” said meeting Chair, the Honourable Isaia Taape, Minister of Health, Social Welfare and Gender Affairs of Tuvalu. “Many of our countries have small health teams so, if there are opportunities to kill two, three, four birds with one stone, then we should do that. Strengthening laboratory capacity, for example, will help countries now during the pandemic, but will also be helpful in responding to many other diseases in future, such as tuberculosis, dengue and measles. This meeting therefore came at the right time to share ideas, think strategically and identify the key actions needed to set up our health systems to save lives now, and also long after the pandemic.”

Ministers and senior officials from across 19 Pacific Island countries and areas (PICs) and beyond also emphasized the need for strong health systems during the meeting.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Takeshi Kasai, highlighted the need to act today to secure a healthier tomorrow: “What is clear from the COVID-19 response is that nobody can predict the future, but action today can change the future. The pandemic has underscored that health is inextricably linked with people’s lives and broader social wellbeing. When health is at risk, everything is at risk. We therefore need to ensure that we make the most of the political will and unprecedented momentum for health that currently exists.”

Deputy Director-General for the Pacific Community (SPC), Dr Paula Vivili, said “While we recognize the major challenges that have resulted from COVID-19 we also need to recognize the major advancements in many critical areas of our work over the past two years. Having said that we must not let gains in other areas including immunization, NCDs, SRH slip any further. This meeting has been an opportunity to look at our other areas of work.”

Other key themes that were discussed at the virtual meeting, held from 22-24 March, were the health dimensions of climate change in the Pacific, and new approaches to curb the rise in noncommunicable diseases in the region. The common thread that runs through each of these topics is the importance of planning ahead in order to have health systems that are able to respond to health emergencies and emerging trends in future.

Discussion during the event culminated in agreement on an outcome document setting out a series of commitments and recommendations for PICs and partners which will guide joint action over the coming years.

This included the endorsement of the Pacific Legislative Framework for Noncommunicable Diseases, a guide to introducing legislation, taxes and policies to make it easier for people to make healthier choices. Noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are currently the number one cause of avoidable death in the Pacific, accounting for 75% of premature mortality.

Additionally, ministers agreed to take further action to address the health dimensions of climate change in the Pacific. Climate change threatens lives and livelihoods, coastal healthcare facilities, and the very existence of some Pacific island countries. The region needs health systems to be ready to meet these rising health needs and to ensure that Pacific island health facilities can continue treating patients even in the face of a changing climate.

The 14th Pacific Health Ministers Meeting was organized and hosted by the Government of Tuvalu, with support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pacific Community (SPC).

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