WHO’s Dr Tedros: “It’s Not Often You Get A Second Chance, But This Year, We Do”

In his first annual letter since taking office in July last year, the director-general of the World Health Organization has outlined the importance of political commitment, a key to success to – finally – achieve health for all.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization

“There is no commodity in the world more precious than health,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Dr Tedros) wrote in his letter this month highlighting achievements over the past year, beginning with endorsement of the 13th General Programme of Work at the World Health Assembly last May. He also outlined WHO’s work in emergency situations and its efforts to drive increased political commitment for health at the highest levels, and its advocacy for universal health coverage.

Over the past year, WHO has responded to 50 emergencies in 47 countries and territories, from Bangladesh and Brazil to Nigeria and Syria, he said.

The eighth director-general of WHO mentioned – among many examples of the UN agency’s efforts – the work of the WHO staff and health workers who have fought to stop the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“The outbreak in DRC illustrates once again that health security and universal health coverage are two sides of the same coin,” he wrote, adding, “The best thing we can do to prevent future outbreaks is to strengthen health systems everywhere.”

“Triple Billion” Target by 2023

In order to do so, WHO has launched several initiatives and, through a holistic approach, is working on different health challenges faced every day by the world.

Among others, the organisation established a High-Level Commission on noncommunicable diseases, an initiative on climate change and health in small island developing states, as well as a new initiative to eliminate trans-fats from the global food supply by 2023. WHO is also fighting against malaria and working with different partners to find the 4 million people globally who are infected with tuberculosis and don’t know it.

In his letter, Dr Tedros reminded that, in order to strengthen health systems everywhere, WHO has fast-tracked the development of its 13th General Programme of Work (GPW). The aim is now to reach its “triple billion” target by 2023, including:

  • 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage
  • 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies; and
  • 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being.

The Importance of Being Prepared

“Earlier this year, we took another very important step towards a safer world by establishing the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board,” Dr Tedros said. This is an independent initiative (which will be led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) convened by WHO and the World Bank to monitor system-wide preparedness for emergencies, as its name suggests.

Universal Health Coverage

In 1978, our predecessors gathered in Alma-Ata and committed to the dream of health for all. But we must admit that forty years later, we have failed to deliver on that promise,” declared Dr Tedros. That’s not because the dream was too big, or the promise was too difficult to keep. It’s because we failed to make the political commitment to make it happen.”

Therefore, political commitment is, according to him, a crucial key to success. “That’s why I have made a priority of engaging with leaders all over the world, to advocate for political action on health, and especially on universal health coverage.” He offered assurances that we are living in a time of unprecedented political commitment to health.

As reported in the letter, Kenyan President Kenyatta has announced that affordable healthcare will be one of four pillars for his second term in office. Other examples of health care developments mentioned in the letter include India, which has announced a new National Health Protection Scheme. The plan, Ayushman Bharat, will benefit 500 million people and establish 150,000 health and wellness centres. Furthermore, Japan, which first introduced universal health coverage (UHC) in 1961, has taken a leadership role, hosting the UHC Forum in Tokyo last December, and committing USD 2.9 billion to support UHC around the world.

“We’re also seeing incredible political commitment to fight diseases,” added Dr Tedros. Indeed, for the first time, this year’s UN General Assembly will include High-Level Meetings on two health issues: noncommunicable diseases and tuberculosis, he noted. “The people who suffer from these diseases all over the world are relying on us: the people who cannot get the care they need; the people who cannot afford the care they need; and the people who aren’t even aware they are infected with a potentially deadly pathogen,” he wrote.

Health for All: Time for a Second Chance?

If the world failed to achieve health for all so far, there is still hope, stated Dr Tedros. “It’s not often you get a second chance, but this year, we do. In Astana, Kazakhstan this October, we will meet again to recommit to primary care as the foundation and the future of health,” he said. “This time, we must not fail. Our meeting in Kazakhstan will be a vital step towards next year’s High-Level Meeting on universal health coverage at the UN General Assembly.”


Image Credits: WHO.

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