A century worth celebrating
March 20, 2004
The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) began its programme of technical cooperation in Guyana in October 1967 and in the succeeding 36-odd years has provided tremendous support to this country in terms of boosting public health, training, research and mobilizing resources among other things. One of the successes of the organisation's work here is Guyana's attainment of Foot and Mouth Disease-free status.
PAHO came into being in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health agency. According to its most recent local publication, 'PAHO Guyana Technical Cooperation 1967 - 2002', it was born out of necessity, as the expansion of international trade also took with it pestilence and diseases, which border patrols could not combat. Today PAHO also serves as the regional office of the World Health Organisation.
Much of PAHO's work in Guyana is in the public domain, but its publication reveals that a great deal is also done behind the scenes. A significant part of PAHO's non-publicised assistance to Guyana is in health manpower development. According to the booklet, PAHO has funded 40 overseas training fellowships for government employees between the period 1991 to 2001 alone. The subjects cover several aspects of health and include areas such as blood banking, health planning, solid waste management, paediatrics, prosthetics, veterinary food control and sexually transmitted diseases. It also supports in-country training.
The organisation's efforts in disease prevention and control address vector-borne diseases such as malaria, filariasis, and dengue fever and communicable diseases like tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Laboratory support and surveillance in each of these areas is provided by a PAHO-specialised centre, the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre. Another component of the organisation's assistance is visible in Guyana's outstanding immunisation coverage, for which the country won an award in 2001. Polio, a debilitating infectious disease, which is linked to extreme poverty has been eradicated here and there has been no reported cases of measles since 1991.
In addition to chronic diseases such as cancer, hypertension and diabetes, tobacco control, expanded access to safe potable water, training in occupational safety and health and disaster preparedness, national health planning and health sector reform also form part of PAHO's support to Guyana
Though combating diseases is one of PAHO's objectives, it has now adopted a more pro-active approach to good health and has been advocating health promotion and protection as an essential public health strategy for achieving equity in health. Its Caribbean Charter on Health Promotion, which was launched in Trinidad in 1993, says: "Health promotion focuses not only on disease prevention, but also on health and wellness and advocates that people's health is a positive resource for their living. It demands close collaboration among health and other sectors since the determinants of health status are varied and diverse."
Since 1993, PAHO has been providing direct support for the development of a strategic health promotion plan in Guyana and efforts are being made to mobilise resources to implement a pilot programme in schools. It has also addressed the strengthening of nutrition, health of the elderly, maternal and child health and mental health programmes.
In 2002, PAHO celebrated its centenary with a number of commemorative activities in its 35 member countries. These included the announcement of 11 public health heroes chosen from throughout the Americas for their important contributions and a number of contests and awards. As its then director Sir George Alleyne modestly said, no one knows what the next 100 years will bring, "... There will be new diseases and new forms of old diseases that will challenge the ingenuity of humankind to overcome them. But I have every confidence, based on the history of 100 years that PAHO will be of use in addressing these problems."