UN calls on global community to ensure access to affordable, quality health services for all

A Social mobilization team engages with a group of local women and men in Lester road about promoting health and facilitating community acceptance of new surveillance, clinical care, and burial procedures. Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2014. Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret

12 December 2015 – The United Nations is marking Universal Health Coverage Day with a strong call on countries to invest substantially in achieving affordable health care access worldwide to improve the lives of millions of people and contribute significantly towards achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Our best defences against any health emergency are strong and resilient health systems that serve all people without exposing them to financial hardship.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message on the Day.

He recalled that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by world leaders in September, envisaged universal health coverage and other important measures to ensure that children live into adulthood, mothers survive childbirth and countries strengthen their response to infectious and non-communicable diseases.

To galvanize action on health, the UN chief noted that in September he had launched the Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health. “Our aim, together with the Every Woman, Every Child movement, is to end preventable deaths among these groups and secure their well-being by helping countries to provide quality and affordable health care to all,” he explained.

The Secretary-General said that today, at least 400 million people lack access to essential health services. Every year, health care costs plunge millions of people into poverty or keep them trapped there. “That is why I call on all countries to ensure that every person could access essential and affordable health services,” he said.

“We are starting to see progress across the world as countries advance on the road towards health systems that cover all people,” he went on to note, but added that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving universal health coverage and that every solution will be unique to the context.

In all cases, the UN chief stressed, success will demand substantial investments, which pay huge dividends in the form of healthier individuals, better social cohesion, greater economic prosperity, and national resilience in the face of any unexpected disease outbreak.

Mr. Ban called the world to resolve to realize this vision as part of collective efforts to enable all people to enjoy better health for generations to come.

Echoing the Secretary-General's sentiments, the Director-General of International Labor Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, in his message for the Day, acknowledged that more should be done to ensure that every person, everywhere, has access to quality health care without suffering financial hardship.

“The ILO estimates that in 2015 more than 90 per cent of the global population living in low-income countries has no health protection and that more than half of the global rural population does not have access to needed health care. Only a fraction (5.6 per cent) of the world's older population benefits from universal health and long-term care,” Mr. Ryder said.

As such, the role of universal health coverage in poverty reduction can be significant. “Well-designed universal health protection, in conjunction with national social protection floors, alleviates the burden caused by ill health. Health protection coverage also reduces the indirect costs of disease and disability,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Ryder stressed that health protection could be a source of employment opportunities. Based on the data from the ILO, the world is short some 10.3 million health workers. Filling this gap has the potential to provide decent jobs and stimulate economic activity in related sectors.

In conclusion, the ILO chief emphasized: “Universal health coverage will improve the lives of millions and contribute significantly towards achieving the goals of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

For his part, UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft said the lessons from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and most recently from the Ebola epidemic, have thrown into stark relief the importance of a functioning and effective health system which is capable of withstanding shocks.

“Universal health coverage is absolutely fundamental to this. It cuts across all of the health-related goals and epitomized the SDGs' strong focus on equity and reaching the poorest, most disadvantaged people everywhere,” he said, recalling that leading economists from 44 countries had declared in September that investment in universal health coverage will bring enormous benefits – in times of crises it mitigates the impact of shocks on communities, while in times of calm, it fosters more cohesive societies and productive economies.

“Let us use today's celebration of Universal Health Coverage Day to tie our efforts together in a more cohesive way and turn it into a movement towards our shared goals. Let governments, civil society, international organizations, researchers and the private sector work together so that we can deliver the resources and the new, innovative, people-centred approaches to enable all people to enjoy equitable access to quality health services without fear of impoverishment,” Mr. Lykketoft concluded.

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