South and South East Asian countries and the World Health Organization are debating health challenges faced by the region, including the impact of climate change on human health.  Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, where a four-day conference of health ministers from 11 Asian countries started Monday.

World Health Organization officials say the recent devastating floods that affected over three million people in India and Nepal demonstrate how natural disasters have begun taking a heavy toll on the health of communities. The flooding left tens of thousands of people vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia.  

WHO Director General, Margaret Chan, told South Asian and South East Asian health officials in New Delhi that the region must increase access to primary health care to help victims of such disasters.        

"Health ministers in this region are very concerned about climate change and its health impact and rightly so," said Margaret Chan. "All the experts tell us the poor will suffer most, and robust health systems based on primary health care that reach the poor are the best protection against the health shocks of extreme weather events."   

Officials are also discussing ways to control the use of tobacco, which  kills more than one million people in the region. Reducing maternal and infant mortality remains another huge challenge, especially in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Burma, which together account for nearly one-third of such deaths in the world.

Health experts also want to develop a common strategy to tackle mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and Japanese encephalitis, which are re-emerging in the region.     

But officials say the region's health concerns are not limited to the spread of insect-borne diseases alone. Indian health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, says increasing affluence in Asian countries is resulting in a higher burden of lifestyle diseases.     

"The increased pace of socio economic development of our countries, now acclaimed globally, has brought along with it rapidly increasing burden of non-communicable diseases, like cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, strokes," said Anbumani Ramadoss. "Together with tobacco and alcohol, physical inactivity, and unhealthy diet - a concept called junk food - are the common risk factors associated with these diseases. Due to the fact that such diseases are expensive to treat and manage, controlling the risk factors should be preferred strategy in all our countries."

Officials stress that the region must focus heavily on promoting health systems that are affordable because vast sections of this populous region are poor.