Home Global Health News Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala appointed WHO Regional Director for the WHO Western Pacific

Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala appointed WHO Regional Director for the WHO Western Pacific

by Public Health Update

The World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board today confirmed the appointment of Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala of Tonga as WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.

Following his confirmation, Dr Piukala addressed the Executive Board: “Today, I stand before you as the first Regional Director from the Pacific in WHO’s history. The enormity of this task is not lost on me, and I am deeply moved and honoured by the trust that Member States and Executive Board members have bestowed upon me. Mālō ‘aupito. Thank you very much. And while this is a moment of pride for our Pacific people, I want to assure you that I will be a Regional Director for all Member States.”

“We all have our own stories, and reflecting upon where I came from, I find it such a blessing that I was once a barefoot boy running around the beaches of my small island, and I now stand among public  health giants at the World Health Organization,” he said. 

“This is proof that no one is really left behind, and despite our different stories, we all have something to contribute.”

“I look forward to working closely with Member States, the Director-General Dr Tedros, my fellow Regional Directors and country offices to fulfill the programme of work and ensure WHO is successful. Let us work for a world where no barefoot child, looking out at a rising sea, needs to worry about what the future holds for his or her health and the health of their family,” he added.

“I congratulate Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala on his appointment as WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. I look forward to working closely with Dr Piukala to promote and protect the health of people across the Region,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.


Priorities for health in the Region

Dr Piukala’s road map for his first 100 days in office includes plans to visit many of the 37 countries and areas in the Western Pacific Region, engage with governments and other stakeholders, listen and discuss critical issues that impact health, and explore areas for increased collaboration.

Under Dr Piukala’s leadership, the Organization aims to strengthen health care in the Western Pacific by integrating efforts to achieve transformational primary health care and universal health coverage. This will help to address the leading causes of disease and mortality in the Region, including noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and chronic respiratory illnesses, together account for nearly nine out of 10 deaths in the Region. 

The new Regional Director will also focus efforts on healthy ageing and actions to address mental health and oral health, as well as maternal and child health, immunization and communicable disease prevention and control. WHO in the Region will also leverage health technology to address inequities, including potential entry points for private sector engagement.

Accelerating action on climate change, the environment and health is another major focus for Dr Piukala. His administration will review current initiatives and identify new opportunities to support country efforts. A cross-cutting, integrated strategy will be developed, and engagement with internal and external stakeholders intensified to enable new technical and diplomatic mechanisms for accelerating action on climate change and health. 

He will ensure strong support to countries and areas of the Western Pacific for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. This includes engagement in global processes underway to develop and ratify a new international “Pandemic Accord”, and make needed changes to the International Health Regulations.

In addition, Dr Piukala will align WHO’s workstreams in the Region with those in WHO headquarters, take stock of efforts to strengthen workplace culture and staff well-being, and manage change with an eye towards streamlining operations, enabling greater efficiency and bolstering progress towards the public health goals of countries and areas in the Region.

First Regional Director from the Pacific

Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala is the first Pacific islander to become Regional Director. He is a politician, public health leader and surgeon with nearly 30 years of experience working in Tonga and across the Pacific. He is a champion of multisectoral collaboration to tackle NCDs and health threats posed by climate change. He has led initiatives to achieve universal health coverage and address emerging infectious diseases. He has been a strong advocate for youth health, tobacco control, safe surgery, and disaster preparedness and response.

Prior to his election as Regional Director, Dr Piukala was a Member of Parliament (since 2014) and the Minister of Health of the Kingdom of Tonga (2014−2019; 2021−2024). He led the country’s response to the undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami in 2022, as well as COVID-19 preparedness and response, resulting in high vaccination coverage and one of the lowest case fatality rates in the world (less than 0.1%). He served as Vice-Chair of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific from October 2022 to October 2023. He also chaired the Pacific Health Ministers Meeting hosted by Tonga in September 2023. From 2019 to 2022 he served as a member of the WHO Executive Board. He was a Commissioner for WHO’s Independent High-Level Commission on NCDs from 2018 to 2020.

He was Medical Superintendent of Vaiola Hospital, Tonga’s main referral hospital, in 2014, and worked as a Senior Medical Officer and General Surgeon in Tonga and other Pacific islands including Fiji, Nauru, Niue and Tuvalu from 2003 to 2014.

Dr Piukala holds various degrees and diplomas from Fiji School of Medicine/University of the South Pacific: a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (1995); Postgraduate Diploma in Surgery (2005); and a Master of Medicine in Surgery (2009).

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