Speech by Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark at the fifty-sixth session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe

11 September 2006, Copenhagen, Denmark

Honourable Ministers, Regional Director, distinguished guests.

I am honoured to have this opportunity to address such an eminent group of health officials representing the fifty-three Member States of the European Region of the World Health Organization.

I would like to warmly welcome you all to the 56th Session of the Regional Committee.

Recently, I have undertaken the responsibility of being Patron of the WHO Regional Office for Europe. To date in my capacity as Patron, I have had the opportunity to visit this Office a number of times and discuss with Dr Danzon and his team, how I might be of value in furthering the mission of  the Regional Office for Europe – namely to improve the health and well-being of the populations of this Region.

As patron for both a very complex organisation and an organisation that works within the extremely complicated area of public health, it has been important from our earliest discussions together to recognize where and how I can add value.  It is obvious, I cannot be an expert. But I can be knowledgeable and have a solid understanding of my focus areas. And I can contribute to generating greater awareness of these areas and public health issues in Europe generally.

For many people in this Region, poor health and suffering, as well as lack of access to basic medical services are unfortunately an everyday reality. I am committed to helping to improve this situation and have agreed with the Regional Office to focus my efforts in a few specific health domains.

In my role as patron of other health related organisations, two areas are particularly relevant – treatment, prevention and control of non-communicable diseases and mental health.

It is therefore most gratifying for me to see, that at this very session of the Regional Committee, a European strategy for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases will be debated. The high proportion of the disease burden and of the deaths that this broad range of diseases accounts for makes investing in their prevention and control a necessity. I wish this Regional Committee success in reaching agreement on the European Strategy for non-communicable diseases – so appropriately named "Gaining Health".

Part of my engagement in this area is to generate awareness that increased physical activity is an important and integral dimension for improved health and well-being. I have discussed the depth of this problem with the team from the Regional Office and, in particular, found the data for childhood obesity staggering. Childhood obesity is reaching epidemic levels. The call for action against obesity has in fact been spearheaded by Denmark since 2001.

I am therefore committed to helping raise the political awareness in this regard and look forward to supporting the forthcoming WHO Ministerial Conference on Counteracting Obesity, which will take place in Istanbul in November this year. It is also my plan to take part in follow up events from the conference, such as the next "Move for health day" scheduled in May 2007.

Although not specifically on the agenda for this meeting, I would like to briefly touch upon two other areas where we have discussed my involvement and participation in specific events.

One area deals with vaccine preventable diseases and immunization where the declining or stagnating immunization coverage is an issue of major concern.  Apart from safe drinking water, no other health intervention has reduced diseases and mortality as effectively and safely as immunization.  However, large discrepancies in population groups still persist and unvaccinated children can be found in a number of Member States in this Region. 

The decline is not only the result of media scares and groups opposing immunization.  It is also due to the fact that incidences of the dangerous vaccine preventable infections have declined, leaving weakened fear of these diseases.  The great paradox is that this decline is attributed to the achievements of immunization. Therefore one might say that immunization has become “the victim of its own success”.

As a mother I want to ensure that my child has every opportunity to grow up healthy, and vaccinated against those diseases that can so easily be controlled.

As Patron I want to ensure that this opportunity is given to every child in the European Region, and that we also reach those vulnerable groups that continue to exist. It is the right of every child to be immunized. To support this project I will participate in a number of official events in connection with the "European immunization week" that will take place in the spring of 2007.

Lastly, in the area of mental health, I am patron for both the Danish Association for Mental Health and the Danish Mental Health Fund. I will work with the Regional Office in order to explore potential national and international initiatives, in particular with respect to de-stigmatization of people suffering from mental health problems. Initiatives that can be both mutually supportive and offer new knowledge and best practices to those in need.

You are facing many important challenges in the work you have before you in the coming days.  I wish you the clarity of vision, the wisdom of experience, the strength of resolve and the joy of being part of a group that is charting the path for "Health for All" in the European Region.

Good luck and thank you…