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UNASUR Health Council Promotes Training and Research

By Odeen Ishmael

Guyana Journal, April 2010
One of the first responders to the Haiti earthquake last January was the South American Council on Health (CSS, the Spanish acronym) which assisted in coordinating the shipment of medical supplies and the dispatch of health personnel to render emergency assistance. The Chilean earthquake in February has also drawn the attention of the Council; a special UNASUR summit in April to assess the earthquake-related problems will, no doubt, result in a more coordinated continental response to Chile’s requests.

The South American Council of Health, comprising the Health Ministers of the 12 member-states, was established by UNASUR in December 2008 – along with other Councils responsible for various areas of its infrastructure – to coordinate the organisation’s health programmes and other related activities.

On November 25, 2009, the CSS met in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and approved resolutions aimed at improving the health of South Americans and the sovereign development of their health institutions. That meeting also commenced work on a five-year (2010-2015) plan, which is expected to include the potential financing sources of the member states and other donors.

The CSS also recognised the goals achieved in H1N1 vaccine procurement through funding from the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), and emphasised the importance of constantly promoting the use of strategies and joint negotiation to purchase drugs and other critical inputs of interest in public health, while ensuring better price, quality, opportunity and equity conditions.

Significantly, Ecuador took the decision to use its manufacturing licenses to promote drug production at lower prices. This was lauded by the Council which urged the development of comprehensive policies that ensure access to essential drugs, vaccines and other sanitary technologies, and promoting mechanisms for investigation and development based on the health requirements by UNASUR countries.

With respect to human resources, the Council agreed to promote training and research aimed at advancing the qualitative level of health workers.  In addition, it created a scholarship programme as a strategy to develop human resources in areas considered critical for the implementation of UNASUR’s health agenda. In selecting scholarship awardees, priority will be given to candidates employed in public health institutions of member states. This scholarship programme will be managed by the South American Institute of Government in Health, which will be headquartered in Rio de Janeiro.  

The Latin American School of Medicine, based in Venezuela, will also play an instrumental role in this exercise, since it will be training physicians and other medical workers for future service in the various member-states. Already, many scholarship awardees from various South American countries – including a first batch of ten from Guyana – are studying at this institution.

Regarding health services, it was decided to politically promote the creation of primary health care-based comprehensive health networks in member states in order to enable the creation of universal health care systems. Obviously, this will necessitate the analysis and evaluation of financial mechanisms to promote cooperation and integration, particularly in the area of advancing the primary health care strategy.

Considering the seriousness of dengue outbreaks, the Council agreed to prepare a five-year action plan (2010-2015) to gather, coordinate and strengthen the experiences and needs of countries and incorporate the established methodology of technical-scientific communities. The preparation of this detailed plan was entrusted to a special technical team which will receive support from PAHO. The plan is expected to be ready by the end of the first quarter of 2010.

The problem of dengue is regarded as one of critical importance, and UNASUR countries are already coordinating joint activities to combat this disease.

At the previous Council of Health meeting in Quito in August 2009, an important bilateral discussion between the Health Ministers of Argentina and Bolivia led to an agreement to institute a plan to combat dengue in the region along their common border. According to the Argentine Minister, the plan was seen as “a joint undertaking to combine efforts and share experiences.”

Last year, Argentina faced the biggest dengue epidemic in its history, with more than 50,000 people becoming infected.

It is also expected that future meetings of the CSS will examine and render support to other cooperation programmes aimed at fighting epidemics across South America.

One such exemplary programme is the cross-border collaboration began in 2000 when Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela joined together with support from the Amazon Malaria Initiative, spearheaded by PAHO and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Responding to World Health Organisation (WHO) findings that malaria parasites had developed resistance to traditional anti-malarial drugs, the countries formed the Amazon Network for the Surveillance of Anti-malarial Drug Resistance (RAVREDA) to assess the development of drug resistance in the Amazon Region. RAVREDA documented the growth of resistance to single-drug treatments, and the countries then collectively introduced specialised combination therapies to replace them.

A significant result of this form of cooperation is the current cooperation agreement instituted by Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela to provide vaccines and medications to combat malaria and other tropical diseases in their hinterland areas, and especially along their common tri-border region.

Most likely, the CSS’s five-year plan, now being finalised, will develop similar types of programmes to combat other diseases that continue to prevail across the continent.

Caracas, 31 March 2010

The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela and the views expressed are solely his.