New York

15 June 2009

Secretary-General's press encounter with Dr. Margaret Chan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for your support for global health. I am pleased to be joined by Dr. Chan this morning.

We have just wrapped up the opening session of the Forum on Advancing Global Health in the Face of the Crisis.

As I said, the/a declaration of the first influenza pandemic in over 40 years reminds us of our global vulnerability and the need for a global response.

We cannot protect ourselves by working in isolation.

That is why this morning I convened, for the second time, an emergency meeting of the Influenza Steering Committee, together with Dr. Chan. This is a critical opportunity to strategize together and to plan out the next steps in confronting the influenza pandemic.

The key is continued coordination and cooperation. Our best response is a firm demonstration of global leadership and solidarity. We will continue to work closely with national governments and the World Health Organization, and I commend the leadership of Dr. Chan in addressing this pandemic crisis.

But I also want to stress that main message of today which goes beyond any immediate crisis: Health is the tie that binds us.

Whether we are talking about building stronger economies or achieving the Millennium Development Goals, health ties it all together.

If we fail to meet our targets on health, we will never overcome poverty, illiteracy and the other challenges the MDGs seek to tackle.

That is why global health is a top priority for me. If I had to single out one area for a renewed and unrelenting focus it is maternal health.

It is the slowest moving target indicator of the Millennium Development Goals. But it is also the fastest way to build stronger health systems and (ultimately) a more prosperous and secure world.

In an era of limited resources and growing demands, we must invest in areas that will reap the greatest dividends. There is no better investment than safeguarding the lives of mothers. Thank you very much. I am turning to Dr. Chan.

Dr. Chan: Mr. Secretary-General, thank you very much. I commend you for your leadership to advance global health, at a time when we are dealing with multiple crises. And this is needed more than ever before. And your leadership, and also bringing together the world's public health officials, and also the diplomatic community as well other ministries, so that they too can understand the relationship, the inter-connectedness, of multiple-fold policies to improve the health of people. The relationship between good health and economic progress is demonstrated beyond doubt the Commission on Macroeconomics, commissioned by my predecessor, Dr. Gro Haarlem Brundtland. So it is good for every country to invest in health. Health investments will bring due economic progress, and brings you more wealth. Perhaps I'll stop here and take any question that colleagues have.

Q: Dr. Chan and Secretary-General, the drug company Novartis has announced that it will not donate any of its work on H1N1 to poorer countries. Do you think that is a good practice? And what is the UN system going to try to do to make pharmaceutical companies react better to the crisis?

Dr. Chan: Well, as you well know, the Secretary-General himself and myself met with the CEOs of about 30 vaccine companies. We appealed to them in their global solidarity to help developing countries to access pandemic vaccines when they are available. They are many ways to help developing countries to access vaccines. Donation is just one of them.

And yes, I was made aware of the announcement. But it is no secret that many companies, vaccine companies in both the developed and developing worlds, pledged to give their donations to the developing world. And of course, we are going to mobilize resources and hopefully that we can get some vaccines at an affordable price for developing countries. So there are multiple mechanisms to get vaccines.

Q: Does Novartis contribute in some other way that you're aware of? Or is it ?

Dr. Chan: Well, I think I would not be in a position to answer any question on behalf of Novartis. You need to ask Novartis.

Q: What about the US President's attempt to change the United States health care programme? Unless someone asked about that before that.

Dr. Chan: I am happy that you bring up this important question. May I say that it's nice to see you in person; I see you all the time on TV, but eh ? . I think this is a hugely important question. The US is a very important global partner, of course, with other countries. Now that President [Barack] Obama has attached a lot of importance to global health, it is good for the world. And his emphasis on continuing on supporting HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria and other MDGs [Millennium Development Goals], as well as neglected tropical diseases –he got his priorities right, because these are diseases that affect the poorest of the poor in the world.

Q: Could the US be moving more to the nationalized health care systems other countries have? Or have you seen problems in those systems that the US should take into consideration?

Dr. Chan: In any country, when they consider health care reform, it is important for WHO to have a very clear position. It is not our duty to tell a country what they should do. They are the best to know from their historical, cultural and economic conditions. And I am confident that the American people, under the leadership of governors, and also senators, congressmen and President Obama, will find their own solution.

Q: One hybrid health question: Are you aware of the situation of doctors in Sri Lanka? They were doctors that treated the people in the conflict zone until the final days and have now been put in custody by the Government. There's been a call, including by the Secretary-General, that they be treated fairly. Does WHO defend the rights of doctors that work in conflict zones, and if so, what have you done in this case?

Dr. Chan: The UN's position is very clear. Doctors working in the humanitarian space should maintain neutrality, do their work and be protected. And I/we have been following up with the regional office on this issue.

SG: For that question, I have raised this issue with the Foreign Minister and President, and also in the presence of many Cabinet ministers. So this has been quite strongly raised by me. They assured me that they would be taken care of properly and they will look into this matter. I am closely following up; as you know, I have sent a letter to President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa last week, urging him to implement all the commitments he made during my visit, and which we have agreed to implement.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, are you concerned about what's going on in Iran right now on the streets, the demonstrations? And are you concerned about charges that there's a lack of transparency and that there are crackdown measures , against journalists included? So can you tell us your reaction to what's going on in Iran?

SG: I have been closely following the situation, particularly right after the election, on the demonstrations and controversies. And at the same time, I have also taken note of the instruction by the religious leaders that there should be an investigation into this issue. The position of me and the United Nations is that the genuine will of the Iranian people should be fully respected. I am closely following how this investigation into this election result will come out.

Q: Your information is that there will be an investigation?

SG: There was an announcement, according to a report by the supreme religious leaders, to look into this election result. And I am closely following it. As I said, in any country, when there is an election, the genuine will of the people should be reflected and respected in a most transparent and fair and objective manner. And that is my position at this time. But as of now, I have to watch all this situation, how it evolves. Thank you very much.