A Filipina doctor, who is also a researcher, advocate for exclusive breastfeeding and founder of a non-governmental organisation, has been awarded the 2023 UAE Health Foundation Prize at the recent 76th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dr Maria Asuncion Silvestre from the Philippines was recognised for her advocacy work in promoting exclusive breastfeeding and improving the health of mothers and newborns.

In collaboration with the Philippine government and 17 other countries of WHO (World Health Organisation) Western Pacific Region, Dr Silvestre scaled up the ‘First Embrace campaign for Early Essential Newborn Care’, a set of simple WHO-recommended and cost-effective actions for health workers attending a mother during delivery and her newborn immediately after birth and during the first week of the child’s life.

Her work has helped save lives at national level and beyond, earning her the 2023 UAE Health Foundation Prize.

Silvestre said during the awarding ceremony: “We sought to ‘re-choreograph’ actions in the first minutes to hours after birth, eliminating unnecessary actions, so we formulated a time-bound sequence of steps.”

“Many health facilities in my country and elsewhere implemented the protocol and reaped the benefits. Evidence shows that receiving at least one of the four core steps was protective; the more elements of essential care received, the more newborn survival improved. Breastfeeding saves lives,” she underlined.

Breastfeeding advocate

Dr. Silvestre earned her BS in Zoology degree, magna cum laude, from University of the Philippines Los Baños in 1978, and her Doctor of Medicine degree from UP Manila in 1982. After completing advanced studies in Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan and Wayne State University, she became a faculty member of UP College of Medicine and UP Philippine General Hospital. She advocated for breastfeeding as a core component of paediatric education, and authored a chapter on infant and young child feeding in the textbook Fundamentals of Paediatrics.

Dr Silvestre currently chairs the Early Essential Newborn Care Independent Review Group (IRG) of the WHO Western Pacific Region Office, and co-directs I-CATCH community-based program for Unang Yakap and Breastfeeding in Dulag municipality, Leyte, Philippines.

Contribution to health development

The UAE Health Foundation Prize was established in 1993 under the directive of the UAE's founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The prize consists of a certificate of award, a plaque and a US$40 000 cash prize.

The prize is awarded to one or more persons, institutions or nongovernmental organizations that have made an outstanding contribution to health development. Previous recipients of the award include former US First Lady Hillary Clinton (1998), France’s Médecins sans Frontières (2002), Egypt’s Sir Magdi Yacoub (2003), Queen Rania of Jordan (2005), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2007), and The Korea Institute of Drug Safety and Risk Management (2018).

Dr Silvestre received the award from Chris Fearn, deputy prime minister and minister for health of Malta and WHA76 president; WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; and Dr Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention assistant undersecretary for the Public Health Sector.

Dr Al Rand said: “The aim of the UAE Health Foundation Prize is to motivate health workers, including scientists, researchers, workers and specialists to make further achievements that benefit health in its various sectors, and to contribute with the UN system in general and the WHO in particular in the implementation of projects and programmes that address health challenges globally.”

The Philippine ambassador to the UAE Alfonso Ver congratulated Dr Silvestre and thanked the UAE. In a statement sent to Khaleej Times, he said: “I take this opportunity to congratulate Dr Silvestre for being awarded the 2023 UAE Health Foundation Prize. This singular achievement is a testament to her dedication to her profession and her innovation that has made a remarkable contribution to a critical health issue – saving the lives and ensuring the well-being of thousands of mothers and their new-born children in the Philippines and its potential impact for the rest of the world. I thank the UAE for recognising Dr. Silvestre and how this likewise mirrors the recognition accorded to the significant contributions of the Filipinos in the UAE. Mabuhay!”

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