Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti
The Rector of the Universidade Nova of de Lisboa, Professor João Sàágua,
Director of the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Prof Filomeno Fortes,
My sponsor, Director of Global Health and Tropical Medicine, Professor Paulo Ferrinho,
Prof Luis Gomes Sambo, WHO Regional Director for Africa Emeritus, ex Minister of Health of Angola,
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
It is my pleasure to join you this morning and I would like very much to thank the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa for bestowing on me the award of Doctor Honoris Causa.
This award is a great honour in recognition of the collective work of my WHO colleagues.
It is also an opportunity to celebrate the history of collaboration between the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and WHO in the African Region.
Since the establishment of the WHO Regional Office for Africa, over 60 years ago, there has been a close connection with the Institute. Dr Francisco Cambournac served as the first WHO Regional Director for Africa for 10 years, starting in 1954. He had been a researcher and malariologist with Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Lisbon.
During Dr Cambournac’s tenure, Portuguese researchers led scientific missions to African countries on diseases such as malaria, trypanosomiasis and leprosy, and for support on nutrition and other health issues. They became pioneers of preventive medicine, “health for all” and rights-based approaches to health.
These continue to be priorities for the Institute today.
And for WHO, they continue to be central to our action, today. Our mission is to promote health, keep the world safe from outbreaks and emergencies, and serve the vulnerable.
I personally have believed strongly in the principles that guide these priorities since my youth, and am promoting them among all our staff in the Region.
As a young child in a South African township near Johannesburg, I watched my parents, who ran a private practice in an extension of our home, provide health care to the poor community in which we lived.
I became aware as a 10 year old, of my father’s constant negotiation with the municipality of the town for improvement of the people’s living and housing conditions, for the sake of their health.
When he started writing letters to the local newspaper, the Government started sending police to search our house for the banned communist literature they were convinced was his inspiration.
My family moved to Botswana which was at that time one of the poorest countries in Africa, and I observed there, primary health care with a strong prevention focus.
Therefore, it makes sense to me that WHO’s top priority is the attainment of Universal Health Coverage (UHC), because everyone should be able to access quality, affordable health care when they need it and without suffering catastrophic financial hardship.
Our flagship programme on UHC is the accelerator of our support to countries.
One of the key challenges we face in attaining UHC in the African Region, is the shortage of health workers in countries. In Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique for example, there are fewer than 10 health workers for every 10,000 people. This is a long way from the estimated minimum needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine plays a key role in helping to address this problem, as a WHO Collaborating Centre for Health Workforce Policy and Planning, especially in its support for Lusophone countries in Africa.
In our efforts to safeguard health security, WHO and the Institute have also collaborated closely. Staff from WHO AFRO have done in-service training with the Institute in the areas of epidemiology and advanced biostatics. We have worked together to support countries respond to outbreaks, including of dengue, Zika, necrotizing fasciitis and Ebola.
We now need to do this in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak currently sweeping through the world.
I came to Lisbon from a meeting with sub-regional partners based in Nairobi, with whom we agreed on how to support countries’ readiness to deal with this threat and would be happy to share the regional plan that we are finalizing.
In the second phase of our Transformation Agenda in WHO in the African Region, we are also promoting innovation and the use of digital technology to speed up covering various gaps in the Region.
For example, our WHO Innovation Challenge, launched in 2018, unearthed more than 2400 health innovations from mainly young scientists and experts, with a good female representation.
We have helped a young Ugandan who developed a rapid test for Ebola, and a young Ghanaian who developed a rapid molecular test for Yaws, to get funding to develop these further and look forward to help in getting them into use in countries. We could explore this as an area for collaboration with the Institute.
In closing, as WHO Regional Director for Africa, I have seen firsthand the valuable role that Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine plays in Lusophone countries. Its work improves understanding of health issues and contributes to the achievement of better health outcomes.
I have learned that your University’s motto is that “every city divided against itself shall not stand” and for me, this is a powerful message about partnership and equity. We are stronger when we work together – across institutions, sectors, countries and continents. And collectively, we can do more to improve the well-being of the most vulnerable among us.
Going forward, I hope that we can leverage the gains we have collectively made, to build capacities, advance research and innovation, and share expertise and information, towards improving health outcomes in African countries.
I would like once more to thank the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for this recognition, and am honoured to accept this prestigious award.
A special thanks to Dr Sambo for the generous introduction and for support and encouragement to me as one of his staff.
Thank you for your attention.