The Ebola epidemic has taught the world a valuable lesson in how weak health systems and deadly viruses can combine to devastating effect. As international generosity funds a rapid response and our staff are being deployed in an effort to end the crisis, the whole world has been given a shot in the arm — and a reason to mobilize around comprehensive, reliable and integrated health systems.
Health crises like Ebola demonstrate the need for strong health systems but more than that, they highlight the links between health care and a child’s broader right to a happy and healthy life. Beyond the impact on health, there has been a devastating knock-on effect on education, for instance, with schools remaining closed in an effort to stem the spread of the disease. Child protection programs have needed to step up to support orphaned children coping with stigma and grief. The crisis is having an impact on food security, too. And so it becomes clear that the failure to instil robust and accessible health systems can have long-term, devastating impacts on people’s lives.
But of course, weak health systems are not only a concern while Ebola dominates the news; they are a perpetual, long-term challenge limiting the life chances of millions worldwide. Development assistance, for all the good that it does, can be criticized for being too short-term in its thinking. The business of building resilient health systems is not always the most compelling story — for instance, when was the last time you read an article in the mainstream media about the need for strong institutions to support the financing of health systems? But these are precisely the sorts of concerns that must be addressed systematically, long after the journalists leave West Africa and public attention turns to the next big issue.
So today, Universal Health Coverage Day marks an opportunity to bring renewed focus to health systems and the means by which we can strengthen them to provide access to information and services for the millions who need it most. A billion people lack basic access to health care and, appallingly, 100 million fall into poverty each year trying to access it. Indeed, the cost of health care is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to people enjoying a healthy life. But challenges in access to health run deeper; we need to continue to critically appraise UHC as an approach, reminding ourselves of its breadth and making its links to other sectors more robust.
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It’s almost invariably the poorest and most marginalized who struggle to access health care, often due to geographic or financial barriers, but also because of stigma and discrimination. We must, as a community, ensure that UHC is shaped to ensure these vulnerable groups are prioritized from the outset. Health service reforms must be paired with legal and policy changes that provide an enabling environment that supports people to live healthy lives.
Take sexual and reproductive health rights, an area of health care we are particularly concerned with at Plan. Policies often limit access to SRHR services for certain groups on the grounds of socio-cultural norms embedded into policy. This is the case for a variety of groups, from women and girls, adolescents, people with disabilities to the LGBTI community. The right to health is indivisible and inalienable and as such we must ensure UHC is used as a means through which appropriate health services are delivered in a non-discriminatory way.
UHC isn’t only a health issue — it touches almost every area of development. So working towards UHC means backing calls for the right to social security, the right to adequate food, the right to clean water and sanitation, the right to freedom from discrimination. It makes long term economic sense too — for example, healthier mothers and babies help children to do better in school. In time, that means a healthier economy.
Plan works to ensure all children realize their right to a healthy start in life. We urge renewed commitment toward the improved quality of health services, something that could support millions of mothers to get the care and treatment they need and make that right a reality for their children. But we are also calling on everyone involved in health to continue making links to other sectors. If we are to achieve the right to health for all we must pursue a broad, multi-sectoral approach to health that addresses its various social and environmental determinants.
Health for all is an achievable goal. At Plan we have been leading Action for Global Health to engage with policy makers across Europe, urging them to take the lead and make UHC a priority within the post-2015 framework. More than 70 countries of all income levels are currently taking steps toward UHC. They are demonstrating that UHC is attainable and that we could be about to witness a global revolution in how health services are organized, financed and delivered. UHC offers us a means through which to rewrite the script and improve development outcomes for everyone.
2015 is a milestone year for many reasons — let’s make sure it is remembered for delivering on the right to health for all.
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