22 September 2023, Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Health leaders from 18 Pacific island countries and areas (PICs) convened in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa this week for the Fifteenth Pacific Health Ministers Meeting (15th PHMM). During the meeting, held from 20 to 22 September, health leaders committed to 26 coordinated actions to tackle priority health issues: human resources for health, health information systems and digital health, health system resilience, and obesity among children and young people. The outcomes of the meeting also included 20 requested actions from development partners.
“The spirit of camaraderie, collaboration and determination I have witnessed over the past three days has been admirable and it’s clear that this group of ministers cares deeply about the health and well-being of their peoples,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, Acting Regional Director for the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific. “The set of commitments they established over the past three days will now drive collective action to deliver better health for people across these island nations.”
The agenda items for the 15th PHMM explored both emerging and long-standing health issues in the Pacific. The training and retention of sufficient numbers of health workers remain a challenge, with shortages being exacerbated by increasing out-migration overseas. Rates of obesity and overweight continue to rise in the Pacific, with PICs making up the top 10 countries with the highest prevalence of overweight among children and young people, with an average of around six in 10 children and young people who are overweight or obese. While the Pacific may have emerged from the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, they must be ready to face other pandemics, disease outbreaks and disasters in the future, including those related to climate change. At the same time, the pandemic highlighted opportunities to harness health information and digital health, such as telemedicine and electronic medical records, to arm health workers with better data to inform decision-making and strengthen the delivery of health services, especially for those living on remote islands.
“Pacific nations have made headway in tackling some of these pressing challenges, but there is still a lot more to do. There will be a lot of bumps in the road towards realizing the Healthy Islands vision, but we must face the challenges head-on, taking advantage of the world’s increased understanding of the importance of health and its pivotal role in the functioning of economies and societies, while also drawing valuable lessons from the wisdom and experiences of the Pacific to forge a healthier future for all,” said Dr Jakab.
The Healthy Islands vision has been serving as a unifying theme for health protection and health promotion in the Pacific ever since it was established at the first Pacific Health Ministers Meeting in 1995. Since then, ministers have been meeting every two years to discuss and find solutions for health issues in the Pacific. It was decided that Tonga would host the 15th PHMM during the 14thPHMM hosted virtually by Tuvalu in 2022. Samoa was confirmed this week as the host of the next PHMM in 2025.
This year’s PHMM brought together ministers and senior delegates from Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna. They were joined by delegations from Australia, Japan and New Zealand, as well as representatives from SPC, WHO, and other United Nations agencies and development partners in the Pacific.
“We have shared insights, deliberated and charted a path forward – guided by a foundational truth that Pacific peoples’ health matters,” said Dr Jakab in her closing remarks addressing the ministers. “By working together, we can implement the decisions and recommendations from this meeting. As always, WHO stands side by side with our Pacific island countries and areas, ready to support your efforts to achieve health for all.”