16 Years with World Health Organisation in Kosovo
After 16 years of work with WHO Pristina Office, the time has come to move to a new duty station and continue my work as WHO representative and Head of Country Office in the Republic of Bulgaria.
I still remember the very first day of my work with WHO, 03 January 2000. It was a very cold winter day in the immediate post-conflict period in Kosovo. I was welcomed to the WHO Office by the French Paediatrician/Neonatologist, Dr. Helene Lefevre Cholay, who was in charge for WHO MCH Programme in post-conflict situation in Kosovo.
In the basement of the former WHO Pristina Office there were full of packs with baby clothes and hats. Most of the clothes were hand-made by Welsh ladies. A WHO staff member who went back to the UK for a short leave informed about the situation in maternities where new-born babies were suffering from hypothermia due to low temperatures in maternities in poor conditions and due to the lack of application of evidence-based practices. The word was spread very fast and a considerable number of clothes and hats that were brought to Kosovo by WHO staff who worked in the programme for Environment and Health.
I started my work in WHO with a selection of baby clothes and making a list of maternities where these clothes would be distributed to. In the same month I continued with assisting in organizing the international course “Essential Newborn Care and Breastfeeding”. In that course very inspiring opening remarks were made by the then-Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Dr. Bernard Kouchner.
A healthy start in life was a high level priority of WHO work because infant health related indicators were very poor. This was also a priority of health policy drafted immediately after the conflict in Kosovo with a leading role from WHO.
In that period in Kosovo around 1150 newborn babies were dying annually during their first week of life or were stillborn (known as perinatal deaths). Alarming figures; this was primarily as a consequence of the health system collapse due to the conflict, the poor economic situation, low level of health education among vulnerable groups, as well as the application of non-evidence-based practices within health institutions.
After 16 years of an intensive work with health professionals at all levels, these figures managed to be lowered by today. In the last perinatal report for 2015, 303 perinatal deaths were reported. Thus, there is an almost fourfold reduction of perinatal mortality. Moreover, in recent years thousands of infants’ lives have been saved and are now healthy children and adolescents of Kosovo.
Besides contributing to the maternal and child healthcare, I was proud to be a part of the WHO team that during its engagement in Kosovo since 1998 has made a special contribution to the development of health policies and strategies, and capacity building in primary health care / family medicine, emergency medical services, environmental health, mental health, health promoting schools the vaccination system, communicable and noncommunicable diseases.
Despite of reduction on infant mortality in Kosovo, the immunisation system and mental health reform can be considered as success stories, too. However, the people of Kosovo and their health continues to be seriously jeopardised by a non-safe environment (air, water and food) as well as health risk behaviours such as smoking, drug abuse, insufficient physical activity and unhealthy eating habits. When we add to this the high rate of poverty, social inequalities and an unconsolidated health system, it is not a coincidence that the life expectancy of Kosovars is among the lowest in Europe.
The Kosovars’ health can and should be improved by addressing basic environmental and social factors in addition to improving health literacy, health promotion and education. Health investment through a lifelong approach and the empowerment of individuals as well as additional investments in health system reforms and health system governance is of paramount importance.
I was blessed to be surrounded and supported by good people and great professionals at all levels of the Organization and beyond. Working with all of you as part of UN Kosovo team was an exceptional experience for me. Many thanks for all the support you have given to me and WHO Pristina team.
My journey from onwards continues with the same WHO family but in a different duty station. I am very pleased that I will soon join WHO CO in Bulgaria and I look forward to continue with great commitment and dedication to such a great opportunity ahead of me.
I wish you and your beloved ones, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Dr. Skender SYLA Master in International Health Head of Office WHO Pristina