Press Releases

    4 July 2005

    Health Threats Respect No Boundaries, Global Cooperation “Imperative”, Says Secretary-General, in Speech to Edinburgh College of Suregeons

    NEW YORK, 1 July (UN Headquarters) -- Following is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s speech and toast to international friendship at the Quincentenary Dinner of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, in Edinburgh, 30 June:

    It is a privilege and a pleasure to be here.  This is my first visit to Scotland as Secretary-General, and I cannot think of a more moving introduction to this land so rich in legend and history than the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.  You have done me a singular honour.

    One of the reasons I am here tonight is that one of your Fellows, Professor James Garden, saved the life of my colleague and friend, Sir Kieran Prendergast.  For that, you have a special place in my heart.

    As your institution celebrates its five hundredth anniversary, the United Nations has only just got to its sixtieth.  Clearly, we have a long way to go.

    In fact, being thrust into the midst of the Royal College is humbling to me in many ways.  Analysing the sort of political problems I deal with does require some forensic skills.  But I have no skill whatsoever with a scalpel, and my knowledge of anatomy is quite limited, so my credentials for this gathering are fairly modest.

    In my business, an appendix is something we add on to a document rather than take out of a human body, and an operation has more to do with peacekeeping troops and blue helmets than with knives and anaesthetic.  If Hippocrates were mentioned in the UN General Assembly, many of the ambassadors would probably assume that they were being accused, once again, of hypocrisy.  Indeed, some might say that we could do much more to comply with the first principle of Hippocrates:  “first, do no harm”.

    So I am here to learn as much as I can from all of you in the short time we have together.

    Speaking of time, I was delighted to learn that by being anointed a fellow of the Royal College, I will find myself restricted by the European Working Time Directive to a 48-hour working week.  That will certainly be an improvement on my working hours in New York.  You and I have that in common:  in our professions, there is no such thing as a real day off.

    But we mustn’t grumble.  We are united by far more than lack of sleep.  We share a global mission and an international membership that is fundamental to both our institutions.

    With more than 90 nationalities represented in it, the Royal College houses almost half the United Nations -- including, I am delighted to note, a healthy contingent from my native Ghana.

    All of you know that an international outlook is essential to the medical family, and that collaboration across boundaries is essential to progress in your field.

    By the same token, we in the United Nations family know that human health is crucial to our mission for development and security around the world.

    That is something I have been deeply conscious of ever since I first started my career in the United Nations family.  Most of you will not know it, but my first job was actually in the World Health Organization -- back in the mists of time, not long after the discovery of the four humours; years before the first successful human heart transplant; a full decade before the arrival of the CAT scan; and a good two decades before keyhole surgery became common procedure.

    With these and so many other developments, ladies and gentlemen, the medical progress that has happened in the past few decades can make some us feel, like the proverbial Doctor Who, as if we were time-travellers from a different planet.

    But if such advances have defied our imagination, so too have some of the challenges.  When I joined WHO, for instance, it would be another 20 years before the word AIDS first entered our vocabulary.

    Throughout these past few decades, the connections between human health, development and security have become increasingly clear.  And it has become equally clear that health systems around the world are nowhere near equipped to deal with the growing challenges facing them.

    Look at the prospects for a child born in some sub-Saharan countries today:  he or she has a less than even chance of living the age of 40.  Almost 11 million children die from largely preventable diseases every year -- including a million from malaria.  Nearly 2 million people still die every year from tuberculosis -- often in association with HIV infection.  AIDS killed more people last year than ever before, and is taking a rising and disproportionate toll among women.  It continues to wreak a path of destruction across the most affected countries, with a steady erosion of public services -- from police to education and local government, and, of course, public health. 

    In fact, the challenges facing us in health are global.  They respect no boundaries.  Experiences in the past few years -- from SARS to bird flu -- have forced Governments everywhere to accept that no country is immune. 

    Global cooperation -- or international friendship -- as you warmly call it, is not a choice; it is an imperative.

    It is clear that to address these challenges, we must make new and serious efforts to build health systems in the developing world -- systems that afford universal access.  At the core of that mission lies the need to remedy the acute shortage of health workers in so many developing countries.

    Africa alone will require 1 million new health workers to achieve the Millennium Development Goals -- the set of objectives agreed by all the world’s Governments five years ago as a blueprint for building a better world in the twenty-first century.  Without such a dramatic increase in capacity, paediatric immunizations will not be administered; suspicious symptom patterns will not be detected; curable disease will remain untreated; women will keep dying needlessly in childbirth.

    As fellows of the Royal College, you already play an important part. By building on the exceptional standards and traditions of Scottish medicine, by taking in colleagues from overseas and assisting them with training and clinical placement, you are making a valuable contribution to the work to strengthen health systems around the world.

    As I said at the outset, this is a special year for both our institutions.  For the United Nations, it not only marks our sixtieth anniversary.  It is also a year in which we are thinking ahead, and engaging in a constructive debate about the future:  how to defeat poverty; how to build a viable collective security system for the twenty-first century; and how to increase respect for human rights in every land.

    In September, world leaders will gather at the United Nations for the largest summit the world has seen.  The summit represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle head-on some of the most pressing challenges of our age -- including some which have frustrated us for years.

    I believe that historic, fundamental progress is possible.  But it will depend on the will of Governments, such as those who will meet just down the road from here in Gleneagles next week.  And it will depend on the engagement of groups and individuals such as you.

    Tomorrow, I will be able to call many of you “my fellow Fellows”.  But for now, allow me to raise my glass to all of you, Fellows and fellow international guests, and pay tribute to every one of you for your commitment.  Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast:  to international friendship; to solidarity; and to our shared mission.

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