Written by Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta
An alumna of the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Asuncion Silvestre, was awarded the 2023 United Arab Emirates Health Foundation Prize during the 76th World Health Assembly for her advocacy work in promoting exclusive breastfeeding and improving the health of mothers and newborns.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Silvestre is a renowned clinician and researcher, a passionate advocate for exclusive breastfeeding, and the founder of a nongovernmental organization Kalusugan ng Mag-Ina, Inc. (KMI). She designed a pioneering protocol called Essential Intrapartum and Newborn Care, consisting of a simple set of choreographed 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. This affordable Essential Intrapartum and Newborn Care Protocol helps to bridge the health equity gap.
“Non-separated, the mother/newborn pair is our first food system. We should protect it as passionately and as furiously as we protect our agricultural lands, coral reefs, and rainforests,” Silvestre said during the awarding ceremony, as reported by the WHO. “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 added.
In collaboration with the Philippine government and 17 other countries of the WHO 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 interventions. Her work has helped save lives at national level and beyond, earning her the 2023 UAE Health Foundation Prize.
The UAE Health Foundation Prize
According to the UAE Health Foundation Prize’s Guidelines, the prize is given to a person or persons, an institution or institutions, or an NGO or NGOs that have accomplished notable advances in the health field according to the global strategy for achieving health for all by the year 2000.
“The aim of the UAE Health Foundation Prize is to motivate health workers, including scientists, researchers, workers and specialists,” said Dr. Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, Assistant Undersecretary for the Public Health Sector, when presenting the prize to Dr. Silvestre on behalf of the UAE Health Foundation, “in order 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 to the implementation of projects and programmes that strengthen health for all around the world and address health challenges globally.”
The UAE Health Foundation Award was given during the 76th World Health Assembly, which was held in Geneva, Switzerland last 21-30 May, with this year’s theme being “WHO at 75: Saving lives, driving health for all.”
A graduate of both UPLB and UP Manila
Dr. Silvestre earned her BS in Zoology degree, magna cum laude, in 1978 from the College of Arts and Sciences of UP Los Baños, and her Doctor of Medicine degree from the College of Medicine in 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 the UP College of Medicine and the UP Philippine General Hospital. She advocated for breastfeeding as a core component of pediatric education, and authored a chapter on infant and young child feeding in the textbook Fundamentals of Pediatrics.
Aside from founding the KMI, Dr. Silvestre chairs the Early Essential Newborn Care Independent Review Group (IRG) of the WHO Western Pacific Region Office (WHO WPRO), and co-directs the I-CATCH community-based program for Unang Yakap and Breastfeeding with support of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Dulag municipality, Leyte.
With reports from the UP Office of Alumni Relations.