Address by Zsuzsanna Jakab to the 126th session of the WHO Executive Board Geneva, Switzerland

19 January 2010, Geneva, Switzerland

I am deeply honoured and gratified by the trust and hope that the Member States of the European Region have placed in me by nominating me as the next WHO Regional Director for Europe. I will do everything I can to meet their high expectations, and in this respect look forward to continued guidance and support from the Member States, the Director-General and colleagues, as well as other partners.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe is very special and precious to me, as it changed the direction of my professional life. Through working for WHO I became part of the world of international public health – and I had some of the best teachers imaginable. First I worked under the unique and charismatic leadership of Dr Leo Kaprio, and then Dr Jo Asvall gave me the chance to serve the European Member States in a range of capacities. My position as Director of Country Health Development was decisive; it put me on the path to working for, with and in countries. Dr Marc Danzon also supported me in extending my experience and my service to our Member States as Director of Administration and Management Support – until my own country needed me back home to support public health development, as well as Hungary’s integration into the European Union.

Since then I have also worked for the European Union as the first Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention Control in Stockholm, Sweden. I was entrusted with the challenge during the last five years to build up a new type of institution for the European Union and its Member States. Although it was a very difficult decision to consider leaving my “baby”, it is really good to be “back home” with WHO.

This legacy means that I owe a lot to WHO. I will do everything in my power and capacity to ensure that the long and strong public health tradition of the Regional Office is continued and strengthened to meet the very diverse needs and high expectations of all our Member States and that Europe’s work is fully embedded in global and interregional developments. In this globalized world, no country and no region can stand alone.

Europe’s diversity is both its beauty and its strength, and its many and varied health needs are a challenge. The diversity of Europe is also an opportunity – as it is a unique reservoir of many innovative health policy and health systems solutions that we need to share better with each other and the world. It is my vision to make the Regional Office a strong, respected and evidence-based “European centre of public health excellence and innovation”, with leadership in health policy and public health in Europe. A place that is ahead of developments and leads the way, so that it can more effectively anticipate, support and meet the needs of all its Member States.

Health and health security needs have never been in sharper focus, both in Europe and worldwide. They are linked with the economic crisis that has hit the Region and the world. The health divide in the European Region, growing inequities in health both within and between countries in the Region, in conjunction with the changing demographic and social landscape in Europe, are of greatest concern. The combined challenges of pandemic (H1N1) 2009, the growing epidemic of noncommunicable diseases (NCD) and the health impact of climate change challenge us to develop and strengthen 21st-century public health tools and approaches.

Such are the complex challenges that we will have to address through a new European health policy that takes health into other sectors of government and makes health a joined-up governmental responsibility, where every minister is a health minister in his or her area. Many of the 21st-century health problems that we face – like the NCD epidemic, which at present constitutes 80% of the disease burden in the European Region – constitute systemic risks that need joined-up solutions. The responses need to combine both social and health determinants, both governmental and personal responsibility and the responsibility of the private sector and other actors in society.

These challenges, in an increasingly globalized world, demand new ways of advocating, managing and responding to health and public health issues at all levels. It is clear that these are not “business as usual” times for all those concerned with such issues. I believe that the WHO Regional Office for Europe has a key role to play in addressing these challenges, as both a proactive leader and a robust partner when joint actions are needed. Importantly, we need to strengthen our ability to adapt effectively and efficiently to rapidly changing environments and take full advantage of the collective wisdom, experience and know-how of our vast and diverse Region – not only for the improved health of Europe but also for Europe’s contribution to global health.

I would like to end by quoting our Director-General Margaret Chan (and it is really a great pleasure for me that I can once again work with her, all our WHO headquarters colleagues and my fellow regional directors).

During her address to the WHO Regional Committee for Europe last September, the Director-General praised the Member States “for interpreting privilege as responsibility”. I do consider the privilege accorded to me of being the next Regional Director for Europe as a huge responsibility that I will, with the staff of the Regional Office, do everything in my power to fulfil. This is my pledge to our Member States and you as one WHO.

I am confident that we can improve the health of all the citizens of Europe by building strong partnerships and “coalitions for health” involving Member States, WHO headquarters and other regional offices, other United Nations agencies, the European Union, the Global Fund, the World Bank and the many other stakeholders in health, amongst which, at least for me, civil society has a very special role to play. In particular, I also want to make heard the voices of the most vulnerable in the Region and work to improve their access to health.

My humble and sincere thanks once again for the trust that has been placed in me. As I said in my acceptance speech to the Regional Committee last September: “Whereas in my campaign I said: ‘I believe in WHO Regional Office for Europe – and I know that I can make it a success’, now I would like to say that together we will make it a success!”

Thank you.