Op-ed: World Health Day: People's health is nation's wealth
07 April 2023
Op-ed by YB Dr Zaliha Mustafa, Minister Health & Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, World Health Organisation representative for Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore
Read the original article in New Straits Times here
World Health Day offers an important opportunity to reflect on some of the major public health successes globally that have improved peoples' quality of life, as well as to look ahead at the challenges we must continue to tackle together.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) was founded 75 years ago to bring about public health action, serve the vulnerable and achieve Health For All. Today, these goals are no less relevant than they were decades ago.
This year, we also celebrate 65 years of strong collaboration and steadfast partnership between the health authorities in Malaysia and WHO. Ever since then, Malaysia has made remarkable progress in improving national health outcomes.
As a signatory to the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration, Malaysia affirmed health as a fundamental human right and achieved effective universal health coverage (UHC) in the 1980s. Smallpox was eradicated in 1978, a year ahead of the WHO declaring the world free of this disease.
In 1984, Malaysia achieved and has since maintained the under-five mortality rate target for the Sustainable Development Goals.
The rates of many vaccine-preventable diseases have dropped significantly because of effective vaccination programmes, such as dramatically reduced incidence of malaria (including meeting the elimination targets for human malaria), the near elimination of lymphatic filariasis and significantly reduced fatalities from dengue fever.
Another Malaysian achievement is meeting the global target on hepatitis B control in 2011, six years ahead of schedule. Malaysia also became the first country in the Western Pacific Region to be certified by WHO for having eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.
Most recently, Malaysian health authorities followed key WHO recommendations and guidance for a robust, whole-of-government and whole-of-society response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While fighting Covid-19, the country faced another public health emergency — a polio outbreak. The outbreak ended in 2021 following coordinated efforts to strengthen polio immunisation for children, which included non-citizens. The foundation of these and other successes is strong universal healthcare — a significant achievement for any country.
It offers financial protection and access to quality care, while lifting people out of poverty, promoting the well-being of families and communities, and protecting against public health crises.
These milestones were reached through the perseverance and dedication of Malaysia's health workforce, the leadership of the government and policymakers, support and collaboration with national and international partners and, most importantly, the populations we serve.
Moving forward, Malaysia needs to face head-on the heavy burden of noncommunicable diseases and other health challenges, such as its growing elderly population.
Diabetes, heart disease and cancer account for more than 70 per cent of diseases in the country. This is especially significant considering that Malaysia is expected to be an aged nation by 2030, with 15 per cent of the population over 65 years.
This means more people will be living longer, but not necessarily in good health. Harmful habits like tobacco use, a unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity greatly contribute to this silent pandemic, but these behaviours can be influenced and changed.
While health authorities are responsible for developing policies, making public health services widely available, and providing the information and incentives that influence our lifestyle choices, they are not responsible for our actions — only we are.
The engagement and empowerment of individuals, communities and societies for increased self-care in health is thus critically important. It is on us to modify our actions, put our health knowledge to use and engage in healthy behaviours to prevent the development or worsening of chronic disease and to improve our well-being.
Behavioral science plays a crucial role in people's decision-making, and can contribute to and complement other public health efforts that focus on non-medical factors that influence health outcomes.
The resolution "Behavioral Science for Better Health" sponsored by Malaysia was recently endorsed at the 152nd session of the WHO Executive Board. Addressing factors that affect peoples' choices, particularly in prioritising their health, is pertinent. We have often emphasised the importance of health screening. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure.
This can be achieved through health education, ensuring affordable, accessible and high-quality health services to all communities, and a skilled healthcare workforce to deliver people-centered care, fully utilised by an informed population.
Through the proposed reforms, we must address the inequities in access to quality services, ensure that primary healthcare is strengthened and address the risk factors to ill health.
These measures will address disparities and improve the health of the population, thereby strengthening the economy. Only together as policymakers, health professionals, partners, patients, and individuals, will we achieve #HealthForAll.