Interview| ‘I aim to facilitate tangible health improvements in Southeast Asia’: Dr Shambhu Acharya, Nepal candidate for WHO, South East Asia Region

‘My vision for the region entails focusing on universal health coverage, resilient health systems, battling diseases, and ensuring preparedness against emergencies.’

NL Today

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: Dr Shambhu Acharya, PhD in health policy and financing from the University of North Carolina, Gillings School of Global Public Health, USA and a master’s degree in social policy, population economies, demography and biostatistics from Ball State University, Indiana, USA, is an internationally recognized global health leader dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of people around the world. He has over 30 years of experience working across local, national, and multilateral public health systems and has held leadership positions within the World Health Organization (WHO) at the country, regional and global level. 

The government of Nepal nominated Dr Acharya for the post of South East Asia Regional Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) last month. The election of the regional director will be held at the WHO Regional Committee Meeting in October. He has received best wishes for success from Nepal and beyond. Nepal Live Today spoke to Dr Acharya about the public health challenges at the WHO Southeast Asia region and why he is the right person for the coveted post. 

Nepal has nominated you for the post of Regional Director, WHO South East Asia. Could you tell us what are the main public health challenges in the WHO Southeast Asia region? 

Thank you for inviting me to this interview. Your question is crucial based on my experience. The Southeast Asia region has achieved significant progress in healthcare over the years. However, there are lingering challenges. In terms of health challenges, the region has made notable strides in combating communicable diseases. Yet, there remain communicable diseases that require elimination. This challenge calls for action.

Another issue is the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the region. Chronic conditions like diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer are becoming more prevalent. NCDs are no longer confined to higher-income countries but affect even low-and middle-income nations. This needs a comprehensive response, including financing, healthcare access, capacity-building, and robust policies. 

Thirdly, the region faces natural disasters and humanitarian crises, which demand attention alongside health emergencies. Collaborative efforts among member states are crucial in addressing these challenges, as diseases disregard no borders. WHO, as a secretariat, plays a vital role in fostering cooperation and solutions. 

The WHO Southeast Asia region is known for its diversity in terms of economy, population, and development levels. How can WHO aid member countries in achieving their health goals? 

This diversity is indeed a strength with countries learning from one another. Those countries excelling in universal health coverage can guide others in achieving it. Economically, there’s variance; some are grappling with communicable diseases while others have tackled them. Collaborative partnerships can bridge these gaps. 

Advanced nations like India, Indonesia, and Thailand can share their capacity and innovation to support other member states. WHO’s role is to provide tailored assistance, recognizing each country’s context. My intention is to enhance this support and foster cross-country learning. 

The WHO Southeast Asia region faces high disease burdens but also boasts rapid economic growth. How can economic growth be harnessed to improve healthcare access and address resource shortages for diseases like TB and malaria? 

The region’s investments in health have been increasing, exemplified by India’s efforts to bolster health programs. Thailand’s universal healthcare is also commendable. To leverage economic growth, my priority is twofold: first, promoting health investment as an asset, not just an expense, focusing on human capital development. 

Secondly, fostering international partnerships with organizations like the Global Fund, the development banks, and climate-focused initiatives. Collaborative investments can bring substantial value to healthcare, helping overcome resource limitations. 

In managing public health crises like COVID-19, cooperation among nations is vital. What regional initiatives can facilitate such collaboration? 

Collaboration across nations is ongoing but can be strengthened further. Existing regional networks like ASEAN and SAARC can be harnessed. Moreover, disease-specific networks can be established, like the program against malaria. Tuberculosis efforts can also benefit from coordinated partnerships among nations like India, Indonesia, and Nepal. A multi-layered approach involving regional mechanisms and inter-regional cooperation is a key to effectively addressing these global challenges. 

‘My priority is twofold: First, promoting health investment as an asset, focusing on human capital development and second, fostering international partnerships.’

What makes you the right candidate for the post of Regional Director and what would be your priorities if elected? 

While I hesitate to claim superiority, I offer substantial experience in public health across three decades. From grassroots work to collaborations with global agencies, I’ve been immersed in the field. My journey spans national, regional, and global levels, shaping my understanding of health’s complexity. I’ve engaged with diverse stakeholders, particularly the UN system, demonstrating partnership skills. I’ve supported Dr Tedros closely in navigating the COVID-19 crisis. My vision for the region entails focusing on universal health coverage, resilient health systems, battling diseases, and ensuring preparedness against emergencies. 

How do you envision resolving the challenge of resource mobilization for WHO SEARO’s work? 

Resource challenges persist across the UN and WHO. The WHO has secured a 20 percent increase in contributions. This is unprecedented in its history. However, we’ll need more. Advocating for increased domestic financing is crucial, given the region’s progress and its potential to benefit from health investments. Collaborating with other health-focused agencies and promoting their resource allocation is also important. By demonstrating impactful results, we can motivate more contributions. The WHO’s role goes beyond its own funding. It involves encouraging investments in the broader health ecosystem by other allied organizations also. 

To conclude, can you briefly outline your vision for the region? 

I envision building on the region’s economic growth, young population, and healthcare achievements. My focus would be on universal coverage, resilient health systems, addressing diseases, and responding to emergencies. Collaborating across levels and organizations, I aim to facilitate tangible health improvements in the Southeast Asia region.