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Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman

President of Sixty-fifth World Health Assembly
26 May 2012

Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman
WHO/Pierre Albouy
Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman

Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman, President of Sixty-fifth World Health Assembly, emanates confidence and passion about public health. She points out that she has performed all possible functions in a health system. First as a clinical doctor, then as a teacher, followed by a stint as a manager of health systems, and then on to work in national health institutes. “I have seen one thing: the medical profession is hard, really hard. We are those who relieve suffering. This requires strength and courage,” she says.

Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman first studied literature, but soon realized she wanted to do something to improve the lives of the people around her. So she took up medicine. As a young doctor in a hospital, she had to deal with containment and treatment of various diseases, and learned public health the hard way. She has come a long way since those days and is currently Minister of Health and Fight Against AIDS in her native country. On the first day of the Sixty-fifth World Health Assembly she was appointed as its President.

Recognition for political commitment

This latest appointment fills her with pride, she says. While she is grateful for the confidence reposed on her by all the governments, she sees the appointment as recognition of her country’s progress towards improving the health of its citizens. “It has not been because of me or my team only. We make progress because there is a presidential health plan in place. Yes, we carried out very tough reforms of our national health system. I worked relentlessly for that indeed, but it was a collective and concerted effort, fully supported by the President.” Having the highest possible political commitment makes a real difference.

Minister N’Dri-Yoman is no stranger to reform. From 1998 to 2004, she implemented a pedagogical and institutional reform in universities across Côte d’Ivoire. And since the post-electoral crisis of 2010–2011, she has worked hard to rebuild the country’s health system.

A turning point

Professor N’Dri-Yoman feels the Sixty-fifth Health Assembly is a turning point for public health. She sees a new kind of solidarity appearing around health, a remarkable spirit of shared concerns and vision. “I see across the spectrum of countries present in our beautiful plenary hall – poor and rich, old and new, with advanced medicine and without – a common commitment to improve the lives of our citizens. For this movement to succeed, we need to be dynamic, strong, persistent and rigorous.” She also believes that evaluating at every step the efficiency of our actions is an essential part of doing the job well.

She already sees something emerging from this Health Assembly: the principle of global solidarity around health. “Everyone unanimously recognizes health as a priority for all people, no matter on which continent or in which country they live. But how to improve health in the face of all existing inequities? We need to put in place social protection, in the form of universal coverage: universal access to medical services and medicines. If this Sixty-fifth World Health Assembly is able to mobilize around universal coverage, then we will have won our bets. Agreeing on the principle is not enough, however. We need to put in place appropriate programmes for effective implementation, and relevant evaluation to ensure success in achieving universal coverage.”

Diseases a challenge for all

She outlines another important issue for her at this year’s Health Assembly. “Let’s not forget why we’re here – we are here because disease and illness exist in the world. And today, noncommunicable diseases are at the forefront of the news because they are prominent in all countries and continents.” In addition to these, Minister N’Dri-Yoman points out, it is also important to keep working on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). “Neglected tropical diseases have changed our notions of geography. They have jumped across continents and it is no longer relevant to talk about African or European diseases. We are all on the same test.”

The WHA President, like many women leaders, has to juggle family and career. She had her first two children when she was still in university. She is now a mother of five, and smiles serenely as she says that she tries to have place and time for everything in her life – for her children, for her husband, and for her work. She doesn’t dwell on her own achievements when asked, but says that all along her professional and personal life she has learned one thing: to listen to others, understand them and get in a dialogue with them, so that problems can be addressed jointly.

Minister N’Dri-Yoman is President of the World Health Assembly at a time when WHO is facing not only public health but also financial and organizational challenges. “Challenges elicit solutions. Challenges are what make us move forward. But before going ahead with solutions, we must listen, we must consult and engage in dialogue, we must be critical of ourselves, and credible and creative. We must be courageous and rigorous – whatever we do, we must commit to doing it well, no matter the circumstances. And, most of all, we must be truthful in everything we do, and trust others…”

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