Opinion: New approaches needed for new health threats

Two nurses speak with an Egyptian mother at a new clinic in the province of Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, Egypt February 19, 2019. Photo by: REUTERS/Hayam Adel

The health of the world’s people has improved dramatically since 2000 by most measures. Life expectancy has risen. Fewer people are suffering from diseases such as polio, malaria, and HIV. Child and maternal mortality has reduced dramatically.

But even as we make progress against some of last century’s leading causes of death and disease, new and complex health challenges are coming to the fore.

The most fundamental of those is the global inequality in access to quality health services, regardless of the ability to pay.

At least half the world’s population still lacks access to essential health services, including the ability to see a health worker, immunization or treatment for HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. Even when services are available, using them can spell financial ruin. Every year, almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty by the costs of paying for care out of their own pockets.

These inequalities can leave people vulnerable to all kinds of health risks, from outbreaks to the less dramatic but equally deadly effects of noncommunicable diseases.

For example, weak health systems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have proved fertile ground for the current Ebola outbreak, which has not yet been contained owing to long-running security challenges.

~750,000 people die each year from antimicrobial-resistant infections

World Economic Forum

Although high-income countries such as Sweden are unlikely to experience an Ebola outbreak, they are just as vulnerable to the growing global threat of antimicrobial resistance, which kills an estimated 750,000 people per year because of the waning effectiveness of antibiotics that have been the backbone of modern medicine for a century.

And although fewer children globally today are undernourished, the number of obese children is exploding, resulting in a fast-growing incidence of diabetes and other NCDs.

Each of these challenges is multifaceted, and so must be the solutions. A strong partnership is essential.

To address Ebola, for example, we must work with the government, religious and community leaders, United Nations peacekeepers, NGOs, and many others to strike a delicate balance between providing adequate security for patients and health workers and securing the trust of local communities. But we also need partnership at the political level. Last year, Sweden initiated a discussion in the U.N. Security Council that resulted in a resolution calling for the respect and security of health workers.

Similarly, containing AMR requires strong collaboration from multiple partners in a “one health” approach that connects human and animal health, as well as important environmental aspects. Sweden is leading by example, by reducing the use of antibiotics in animal production and prescriptions for patients, but is also playing an important leadership role internationally through the UNSC’s group on AMR, which the World Health Organization co-chairs.  

To end the epidemic of overweight and obesity, we must create societies where people can make healthy choices for themselves and their families. We need new ways of enabling people to eat healthy food and be physically active, to help them quit or never start smoking, and to drink less alcohol. Governments and global organizations must use a combination of tools, including policy, taxation, pro-health incentives for the private sector and, most importantly, promoting knowledge and values at the community level.

This week in Stockholm, the Swedish government and WHO are convening the first WHO Partners Forum, to foster more effective collaboration for global health. It offers a historic moment for honest discussions on tackling modern global health threats, with leaders from key partners including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

WHO’s new five-year strategy is designed to support countries to get on track and stay on track for the Sustainable Development Goals. At its heart are the “triple billion” goals of ensuring that by 2023, 1 billion more people are benefitting from universal health coverage, 1 billion more people are better protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion more people are enjoying better health and well-being.

To achieve those targets, WHO is undertaking significant reforms to make it more modern and responsive, and to ensure it delivers results for the people it serves and value for money for the governments and partners who fund it. A key change is to strengthen the role of WHO’s 149 country offices to ensure we are listening carefully to what countries need, and that we are supporting them in implementing the best evidence-based health policies.

But WHO needs its partners to play their part by supporting it with more flexible and predictable funding that allows the organization to allocate resources more effectively and efficiently. Sweden is a proud supporter of WHO and the leading provider of flexible funds.

Sweden is committed to working with WHO and other global health agencies to find new solutions and stronger political support to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

    Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organization. His distinguished health leadership career spans nearly 30 years. As minister of health from 2005 to 2012, Dr. Tedros transformed Ethiopia’s health system by investing in infrastructure, building the health workforce, and developing innovative ways to direct resources where they were most needed.
  • Peter Eriksson

    Peter Eriksson is the new Swedish minister for international development cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the previous Swedish government, he was the minister of housing and digitization. Eriksson has also been a member of the European Parliament, member of the Swedish Parliament, and president of the Committee on the Constitution. Additionally, he has also been one of two spokespersons for the Swedish Green Party during 2002-2011.