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"We are going to sweep up all of society and its friends and allies in the Hemisphere in a tidal wave of optimism and resolve to meet those goals..."

Inauguration Speech of Dr. Mirta Roses, Director of the
Regional Director for the Americas.

Mr. Vice President and former Minister of Health of Ecuador,

Minister of Health of Ecuador, as President of the 26th Pan American Sanitary Conference,

Assistant Secretary for Management of the OAS, representing Secretary General Dr. César Gaviria,

Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services of the United States of America, representing Secretary Tommy Thompson,

Ministers of Health of Argentina and the Dominican Republic,

Senator and former Minister of Health of Bolivia,


Senior managers of governmental and nongovernmental agencies and institutions,

Director Emeritus,

PAHO staff at Headquarters and in the countries who join with us at this moment,

Dear friends who have come from many parts and from my country, Argentina, for this special occasion,

My family, seated in this hall or watching, listening, or experiencing this moment elsewhere but, nevertheless, here by my side,

Ladies and Gentlemen...

Like all WHO and PAHO staff, when I began my work almost 20 years ago, I made a commitment to serve the Organization.

At this time I am reaffirming that commitment with emotion, pride, and dedication as the first woman to assume the mantle as Director of this prestigious century-old Organization and take the responsibility for guiding its steps into the new millennium.

I feel moved by a force, like a raging torrent as Maya Angelou would say, that propels me forward, the confluence of the deferred dreams and aspirations of generations of women, public health workers, struggling peoples filled with hope in search of a better quality of life for themselves and future generations.

The great challenge is to fulfill these expectations, but your presence here, my old and dear colleagues and friends who have come from far off, my family, my companions in work, representatives of governments, professional agencies, and civil society organizations, and all who are viewing us through the virtual media, clearly symbolizes your recognition of the importance of health for our peoples and your respect for this Organization. It also means that I will have a marvelous team to study, debate, identify, and select the best strategies and actions to advance rapidly toward a better quality of life for all the peoples of the Americas.
I appreciate the kind remarks of the Representative of the OAS, the Department of Health and Human Services of the United States, and the Minister of Health of Ecuador, representing the countries of the Americas, as well as the message of Dr. Brundtland and the very special words of our Director Emeritus, Dr. Alleyne.

Since the Pan American Sanitary Conference, I have received countless messages containing congratulations, offers of collaboration, invitations to visit the countries, proposals for joint efforts. I would like to thank you all collectively and assure you that it is my greatest wish to establish close contact as soon as possible with all the countries of the Hemisphere. My focus will be the work in and with the countries and, faithful to my calling as an epidemiologist, I will work intensely to stay in contact with communities and observe the projects under way in that sphere of activity.

I feel that this children's chorus is like a delegation representing the millions of boys and girls in our countries. At this swearing-in ceremony, their voices bring home the fact that they are the concrete objective of our work and that our task must be to guarantee them the best opportunities in life.

The PAHO choir represents the voices of our staff and of all public health workers in the Hemisphere, always willing to give generously of themselves to promote health and protect life.

The six directors who preceded me at PAHO forged a path of excellence and transparency in this house. All of them worked to build a frugal, prudent institution that protects its human resources and the collective capital of knowledge amassed by all the countries.

The Organization has a solid foundation: the health workers in the Secretariat and the countries who have passionately worked to meet the goals established for improving health; the ministers and leaders in health who have guided the joint action to ensure success; and the partners and members who have generously given their support and have entrusted us with financial and technology resources to enable us to meet the proposed objectives.

With this united group bound in solidarity, we have made great strides in public health and improved the health status of our peoples, even in the midst of serious political, economic, and social crises.
This will be the century of networks, of connectivity and interdependence, that will enable us to overcome the barriers of space and time and open up heretofore unimaginable possibilities for humanity. If we stimulate these networks to exponentially multiply the available social capital, to link peoples and institutions in a vast web of support and inclusion for all the inhabitants of the Hemisphere, we will have taken a giant step toward ensuring that our knowledge and experience flow into new modalities of technical cooperation exchange for sustainable human development.

Countless service, teaching, and research institutions, as well as those that produce health inputs, will make up the networks for the work that will be the particular focus of my administration. The potential of the existing resources and the interest in health and development activities are so evident today that we will be in the best position to develop new programs that are both useful and relevant to all the countries. Several working groups are already engaged in preliminary consultations to promote these lines of action. Information exchange and cooperation among countries and institutions are the essence of PAHO's work. We will launch a Health in the Americas portal as a virtual village square, where all actors concerned about advancing public health can come together.

We are committed to health for all, to the primary care strategy, to health promotion, and to the reduction of inequities and social exclusion. We defend the principles of technical cooperation for capacity building and guaranteeing self-sufficiency, autonomy, excellence, and sustainability. We are convinced that, as demonstrated in Argentine, the highly creative activities and methodologies that emerge under the most adverse conditions and trying times in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas represent valuable capital that PAHO should take advantage of, systematize, and place within the grasp of all as an important tool for improvement and development.

The past century has witnessed significant achievements in Health in the Americas and is worthy of celebration. Working together in solidarity, PAHO and its member countries have recorded and properly commemorated this centennial.

We entered the new century with a gradual improvement in our health indicators. We must now keep our eyes on the challenges that demand greater attention, so that together we can face them successfully and hasten the time when the highest possible level of health will be enjoyed by all.

The countries are confronted with adverse economic conditions marked by growing poverty, aging populations, precipitous chaotic urban growth, and environmental degradation that render them highly vulnerable.

Each day finds more people living below the poverty line, and the gap between the rich and poor is widening in many countries, communities, and social groups. Environmental risks grow more threatening day by day, and globalization is producing unequal benefits that exacerbate the inequities among countries.
Within this context, those of us who consider health a social good can take pride in having been able to make and sustain impressive gains in public health and the extension of life expectancy in most of the countries, despite successive, prolonged economic and political crises. We have experienced critical periods, such as the so called "lost decade" with its setbacks for democracy and its economic stagnation, but even so, we have managed to secure the elimination of polio, the virtual disappearance of measles, and the reduction of infant mortality.

Nevertheless, the growing phenomena of HIV/AIDS, malaria, dengue, violence, chronic diseases, and mental and physical disabilities are disturbing.

In accordance with the Strategic Plan, I will give special attention during my mandate to containing the AIDS epidemic, with emphasis on the Caribbean countries, and to improving health conditions in the priority countries, especially Haiti.

These are general guidelines that will enable us to orient PAHO's work in the coming years. The Strategic Plan now requires that they be transformed into concrete courses of action, organizational arrangements, and programs applicable to the particular situations of the countries.

Health disparities are increasingly associated with social vulnerability, unstable economic growth, and threats to national security.

Governments and other key sectors are acutely aware of the need to reduce the gaps in health status and access to the health services. At the same time, the regional integration processes are focusing more on the international dimensions of public health and its close links with the national and local situation.

The Declaration of the Millennium Goals reflects an unprecedented political consensus on the state of the world and its vision for the future, setting measurable goals and specific timetables for human progress. These goals will be attainable if we can make them the standard, the dream, the aspiration, and the demand of individual people, groups, families, communities, and nations. They will be attainable if we can generate enthusiasm and muster the individual and joint efforts of a multiplicity of networks with different languages, beliefs, and realities, if we can revive trust, understanding, and solidarity among the countries.
The health sector will bear a heavy responsibility in the attainment of the Millennium Goals and expects to benefit in turn from the progress made as a result of consensus-building among all the sectors. Since the Declaration of Health for All and the Alma-Ata conference on primary care 25 years ago, the world has not heard a call to collective action with so powerful a message.

I commit myself to taking the first steps toward creating a new model of collective action for the PAHO of the 21st century to assist each human group in defining its own goals, conquests, and intermediate objectives and in monitoring them to ensure they are met as swiftly as possible. Imbued with hope and determination, we are going to sweep up all of society and its friends and allies in the Hemisphere in a tidal wave of optimism and resolve to meet those goals. We will forge the great team for Health in the Americas by building on the successes and experiences amassed under the glorious banner of Health for All, acknowledging our errors and failures, our weaknesses and strengths, and also our valuable contributions to the well-being and progress of human society.

We have made strides in recognizing the economic value of health, its invaluable contribution to reducing poverty and attaining more just and sustainable human development, thereby contributing to human security, the advance of participatory democracy, and economic growth in harmony with nature, without compromising the survival of future generations.

Our societies demand that in allocating resources, priority be given to protecting and improving the health of our populations. They view this as a wise and intelligent decision that makes political authorities legitimate leaders in the eyes of their peoples.

Ambassadors, Ministers, Delegates, my friends the staff of this Organization, I am convinced that this is the time for the health of our peoples to become a driving force for the achievement of social stability and economic growth, enriching human and social capital and imbuing it with dignity. The time is ripe for putting health at the forefront of social action and taking advantage of its undeniable contribution to the reduction of social and economic inequities. Health can mobilize all of society to obtain rapid, sustainable human development in the Hemisphere.

I therefore intend:

  • to restore the Pan American Health Organization as the forum for Health in the Americas, opening it to the participation of all sectors of society.
  • to work to build consensus and forge partnerships, strengthening hemispheric and global solidarity and encouraging new social actors to get involved in the defense of health.
  • to address the new dimensions of health in the Hemisphere's economic, social, and political integration processes.
  • to advocate for the continuous improvement of health systems, promoting rapid advances in securing geographical, cultural, and financial access to health services and expanding social protection, in keeping with the mandates of the Summits of Presidents and Heads of State and Government.
  • to restore the pride and commitment of health workers and health organizations, emphasizing the importance of quality care and accountability, with practices based on shared and accepted evidence.
  • to make PAHO the public reference center for health information, utilizing and facilitating access to knowledge with all the instruments at its disposal within the framework of the electronic revolution and mass communication.

My predecessors-- and especially Sir George, now Director Emeritus of PAHO-- have turned over to us this day a youthful centenarian PAHO. We have a beautiful renovated Headquarters and many refurbished, well-maintained Representative Offices in the countries, as well as a corps of highly committed, well-trained professionals and support staff. Thanks to prudent and skillful financial management, we can cooperate with the countries on a continuous basis. But we will be able do far more if they increase our resources. I would like to thank you, Dr. Alleyne, in the name of all your friends in this house, for your skill and leadership, your affection and zealous commitment to PAHO in every year in which you served as a staff member or Director. As Dr. Barry Whaley said at a recent meeting of former PAHO staff, "You can take the staff member out of PAHO, but you can't take PAHO out of the staff member." As proof of that, we have here with us two former ministers of Ecuador who, in collaboration with several others, put together a very beautiful book to mark the Organization's centennial.

My first paying job in public health with the Ministry of Health was as a door-to-door vaccinator during the vaccination campaign of 1965, when we were putting an end to smallpox. I feel very moved and privileged, after 38 years, to remain a public servant committed to Health in the Americas and to pay homage to volunteer and community health workers on this, the 25th anniversary of the Alma-Ata conference.

And I assure you, Cacique Mario in Tartagal, Argentina; Father Tarcisio in Gutiérrez, Bolivia; Carlos Osorio, President of Villa Centenario in Acajutla, El Salvador; Ma Pampo and the centenarian ladies of Dominica; the women of the assembly plants and neighborhoods on the Mexico-U.S. border, that this Director and this team at PAHO will be united in the defense of your health and your future.

I would like to close my remarks with some words from a poem by León Felipe, a Spanish writer who sought refuge in Mexico during the civil war


Thank you very much, and now, to work!

January 31, 2003.

To Learn More:
Biography of Dr. Mirta Roses Periago
Interview With Dr. Mirta Roses Periago
Dr. Mirta Roses Periago Photo Gallery
Video Interview With Dr. Mirta Roses Periago
Sound Bytes for Radio Stations
News and Public Information Page

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