MANILA, Philippines—Dr. Takeshi Kasai was confirmed Saturday as the World Health Organization regional director for the Western Pacific by the WHO Executive Board in Geneva, Switzerland.
“I am grateful for the trust placed in me by WHO Member States and deeply honoured to serve as Regional Director for the Western Pacific,” said Kasai. He underscored the importance of making WHO even more responsive to countries’ needs in a world where rapid economic, environmental and social changes are affecting the lives and health of the Region’s nearly 1.9 billion people.
Kasai said he plans to build on the decade of leadership and legacy of the outgoing regional director Dr. Shin Young-soo: “For more than seven decades, countries have counted on WHO to work with them to solve a variety of public health challenges. My predecessor, Dr. Shin Young-soo, transformed WHO in this region, making it more people-centered and country-oriented. We must continue to evolve as an organization—building on past accomplishments while being closely attuned to new realities on the ground.”
Challenges in the region
Kasai said he will reinforce support in three key areas that member states have identified as priorities for the future: health security, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and ageing, and environmental and climate change.
“We must keep the region safe from new and re-emerging disease threats. We don’t know when or where the next pandemic will arise, but it will happen,” he said. “All countries must be prepared, regardless of their size or stage of development.”
Populations are ageing, and NCDs—such as heart disease and diabetes—are already the leading cause of death and disability in the Western Pacific Region, he said.
“We must develop new approaches that go beyond advocacy and training, including developing health systems that can effectively address the challenges posed by NCDs—as more people are growing old with one or more chronic conditions,” added Kasai.
Environmental issues associated with rapid economic development also pose a growing threat, he said. More than 2 million people die in the Western Pacific Region every year as a result of indoor and outdoor air pollution.
“This is a profoundly important issue for countries in our region,” Kasai explained. For some Pacific island countries, climate change threatens their very existence, as rising sea levels risk washing away entire islands and atolls.
“These are huge challenges that we must face together, but they are not insurmountable,” said Kasai. “And while the future will bring new challenges, at the same time it is full of opportunity – as innovation and new technology make things possible that we couldn’t even imagine not so long ago.”
Public health champion
A physician by training, Kasai’s career in public health began nearly 30 years ago, when he was assigned to a post on the remote northeast coast of Japan, providing health services for the elderly. He saw first-hand the value of building strong health systems from the ground up.
Kasai went on to work at different levels of the public sector in Japan: local hospital, emergency centre, community health centre, prefectural and national government. He helped respond to a series of outbreaks and crises, including avian influenza in Hong Kong SAR (China) and Miyazaki, Japan, and the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake.
Kasai has worked for WHO for more than 15 years. As director of Programme Management for the last four years, he served as deputy to the regional director.
As a technical officer and later director of the Division of Health Security and Emergencies at the regional office, Kasai was instrumental in developing and implementing the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies, which guides Member States to improve readiness and response in public health emergencies.
Kasai also served as the WHO Representative in Viet Nam from 2012 to 2014. As he concluded his tenure, the government honoured him with the prestigious “For the People’s Health” medal in 2014, in recognition of his significant contributions to public health in Viet Nam.
Kasai received his medical degree (MD) from Keio University in 1990; a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in 1996; a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the Royal College of Physicians in London in 1997; and a doctorate (PhD) in medicine from Iwate Medical University in 2012. (PR)