Coming from a medical background myself, I know what proper health care really means. In the increasingly fragile world in which we live, global health hazards are a daily reality. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been a stark reminder of how devastating health emergencies can be for communities — but also how, in an increasingly connected and urbanized world, they can quickly become global challenges.
The United Nations estimates that the unprecedented rise in the frequency and scale of both natural disasters and man-made conflicts put over 300 million people in need of humanitarian health assistance every year. And our response to these needs can make the difference between life and death.
As part of our commitment to assisting vulnerable people in humanitarian crises, the European Union provides an annual average of 200 million euros ($216.9 million) for health programs, representing about 30 percent of global humanitarian health funding. In addition we are taking prevention and preparedness seriously with significant research and development investment through Horizon 2020 — for example, the 140 million euros in Ebola research for potential treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tests announced soon after the onset of the Ebola epidemic.
Together with our humanitarian partners in the field we have been successful in fighting polio outbreaks in the Horn of Africa, Syria and Ukraine. Thanks to our rapid response in bringing in diagnostic and treatment supplies for malaria from the Global Fund to the Central African Republic since the beginning of the crisis, we helped to save many lives. Through our support to provide free access to health care, immunization campaigns for children and treatment of severe and moderate malnutrition we are also reducing mortality rates. In Yemen or Colombia we are helping refugees to overcome conflict traumas and to improve their mental health, which is crucial to be able to start a new life.
But funding alone is not enough. We need to also improve the way we respond.
As the EU Ebola coordinator, I have witnessed how potent the virus is, even affecting well-protected health care workers. Ebola has been a warning for the world’s health systems, showing that global health emergencies know no borders, and do not wait for us to be ready to deal with them.
Another stark lesson to be learnt from the Ebola crisis is the need for more effective coordination across sectoral, institutional and geographic boundaries. It underlines two things about global health governance:
First, the crucial need for effective alert systems at the global and regional level. This is why we cannot afford not to get the ongoing reform of the World Health Organization right. And we need to make sure the international response system is well set up and equipped to step in when it needs to, including through effective use of the health cluster to mobilize and coordinate support.
Second, the fact that nothing can substitute in the longer term for effective health care systems at the national and local levels. To be successful in responding responsibly to health care needs, humanitarian and development partners must genuinely work together. We will only truly succeed when the most vulnerable communities are able to face upcoming crises and disasters with their own means.
And we must learn from the positive stories, as well as from the less positive ones. Côte d’Ivoire is one of the examples where the joint forces of humanitarian and development actors were able to reinforce the health system for the benefit of millions of Ivoirians most affected by the Ebola crisis.
My very committed colleagues in the European Commission and I are working every day to make sure that we continue in this direction.
Christos Stylianides is the European commisioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management. Prior to this, he was appointed as the European Union Ebola coordinator by the European Council. He previously served as a member of the European Parliament and government spokesperson of the Republic of Cyprus.
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