As a young doctor working in Hong Kong’s department of maternal and child health, I learned some lessons that would last me a lifetime. Trained by the British civil service, I absorbed the importance of discipline and a methodical approach to every task. But I always ran behind schedule in my appointments with patients because I spent time trying to find the root causes of illnesses that came as much from social circumstances as from microbes. I could cure a child with a severe respiratory illness, but when that child went home to a damp and moldy house, I knew I would see her again with the same illness.
In 1994, when I became the director of Hong Kong’s department of health, I learned the lesson that it is wise to do whatever it takes to get government support on your side. My years of responsibility in that position cemented my belief that an integrated primary health care approach that puts people at the center is the cornerstone for an effective health system. That work also taught me to put my faith in people but to put my trust in the evidence.
In January 2007, when I began my decade of work as the World Health Organization’s director-general, I took these lessons with me. I knew I would need to get the governments of 194 countries on my side, or at least get them together enough so we could agree on a shared global health agenda.
It bears constant repetition that health systems based on comprehensive primary care are better placed to predict emerging health challenges and to deal with ongoing levels of chronic illness and disease, as well as providing comprehensive health promotion inputs
Greater encouragement of nutraceuticals and readily available products, such as the ubiquitously beneficial melatonin, versus encouraging countries to fill up the piggy banks of pharmaceutical companies, may have saved many lives over the past ten years, including many of those dying from the Ebola virus.
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