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NHS minister receives top WHO award for tobacco control

ISLAMABAD: National Health Services (NHS) Minister Saira Afzal Tarar was conferred the top World Health Organisation (WHO) award in recognition of her leadership to Tobacco Control initiative. WHO Regional Head Dr Ala Alwan handed over the award, conferred by WHO Global Chief Dr Margaret Chan, to the minister. Dr Ala Alwan and Centres for Disease Control (CDC) USA Director Dr Tom Frieden, currently on a visit to Pakistan, met the minister along with their delegation on Thursday. While handling over the prestigious award to the minister, Dr Alwan said WHO recognises the leadership of the Pakistan’s Health Minister Saira Afzal in taking forward tobacco control by announcing enhancement of size of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs to 85%. The initiative makes Pakistan only the second country in the world to introduce such a measure for public awareness and to dissuade smokers and non-smokers from use of tobacco, which is a major cause of preventable deaths in the country. Later, a delegation level meeting was held between the minister and the two visiting dignitaries.

Prime Minister’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication Ayesha Raza Farooq, senior officials of Health Ministry and international partner agencies attended the meeting. Saira Afzal, on the occasion, shared with the delegation that the Polio Eradication Initiative enjoys the highest level of government commitment and ownership at all levels driven by a strong political will and national consensus to root out the disease. “The government is working to ensure availability of high quality maternal, newborn and child health services to all, especially the poor and a ten point national vision for coordinated priority actions to address challenges of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child health and nutrition has been commissioned on the orders of the Prime Minister” she added. She informed the delegation that the ministry is addressing the issue of increasing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) with appropriate strategies. “An NCDs unit is fully functional in the ministry and we are heading towards finalisation of a National Action Plan for NCDs with continued support of the WHO,” she added. The minister said tobacco kills about 108,000 Pakistanis annually while 1,200 Pakistani children between the age of 6 and 15 begin smoking everyday, which is an alarming situation. “The ministry is taking every possible step to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use by implementing the framework conventions on tobacco control to which the country is signatory,” she informed the delegation.

She praised the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMR) initiative of assessment of “Essential Public Health Functions” in the region and requested WHO to provide technical assistance in conducting an assessment of essential public health functions in the country. Acknowledging the visit of CDC Director Dr Tom Frieden, the minister said that we have a strong partnership with CDC in the area of disease control and this visit would provide new impetus to our existing collaboration.

The minister requested the CDC to support in establishing a world-class disease prevention and control centre at the National Institute of Health Islamabad, modelled on centres for disease control with laboratory and disease surveillance network down to the district level. Speaking on the occasion, Ayesha Raza Farooq said Pakistan has come a long way since the explosive outbreak of 2014 and much has been done to change the complexion of the polio eradication drive in the country. “We have been encouraged by the recognition of the turn-around in Pakistan by the International Monitoring Board (IMB) and recently concluded Technical Advisory Group meeting. The guidance of Polio Oversight Board chairman would be of critical importance as we move forward,” she said. Ayesha emphasised the importance of utilising the current opportunity to synergise the efforts of Polio Eradication Initiative to Routine Immunisation. “We have decided to use the Polio Emergency infrastructure to monitor routine coverage,” she added.

Dr Ala Alwan reiterated his commitment to working closely with Pakistan in the areas of Public Health. He said the upcoming assessment of public health functions supported by WHO was a critical initiative. CDC Director Dr Tom Frieden expressed the support of his organisation towards strengthening disease control in the country. He said his organisation was willing to work closely and strengthen partnership with Pakistan to improve health indicators through a strengthened disease surveillance and response system.

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