Dr Leslie Ramsammy, President of the 61st World Health Assembly
Dr Leslie Ramsammy, Minister of Health from Guyana, is this year's President of the World Health Assembly. He grew up in an impoverished community in Guyana. "No one starved and everyone took care of each other," he says.
Dr Ramsammy says he was always driven by a sense of service to others. As a young man, he hoped to be a journalist but ended up studying microbiology in the United States of America. Enjoying and excelling in his studies, he returned to Guyana during a time of political transition where he says he got "caught up in the development." And there he has remained until now, serving in a wide range of public office positions culminating in the post of Minister of Health in 2001.
Dr Ramsammy believes that global health must be driven by Member Sates and that countries must be clear about what they want. "We are too conservative in our global health standards," he says in an interview. "A child born in Tanzania should have the same chance of survival and for living a healthy life as a child born in a developed country."
He calls for a paradigm shift in which "we set universal standards that transcend national goals and for collective global action to help those countries who need support for meeting these global standards." An ardent advocate of equity and social justice, Dr Ramsammy cautions: "We should not be satisfied with reaching for the low-hanging fruit." He calls for global resources to be mobilized for more equitable health.
Dr Ramsammy says global public health goals should include:
- elimination of all preventable maternal deaths by 2025
- elimination of all preventable child deaths by 2025
- add chronic, non-communicable diseases to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
He feels passionately that infant and child mortality should be the most important indicator for success in public health work. "If we build our health systems to minimize infant and maternal mortality, then we will have systems that can address other human health challenges," he adds.
He also cautions the health sector not to wait for perfect programmes, techniques and interventions while people suffer. We must be practical and pragmatic about health interventions for communities, he emphasizes.
The President also calls for expanding the horizons of the MDGs to include non-communicable diseases, which are responsible for much suffering, disability and death. He calls these MDG+. WHO also needs to show leadership on the public health aspects of climate change, he adds.
Asked what it means for him to be elected the President of the Health Assembly, Dr Ramsammy says that it is a "wonderful opportunity" to get key health messages outside his own world. "I want global resources to be used for global health goals, not just national ones and I want this and other messages that have driven me to be heard by all so that I am no longer just a voice in the wilderness."