Health is a human right, not a luxury

Access to health care should not be defined by how much money someone has, whether they live in a rural village or a bustling city, whether they are male or female, young or old, their ethnicity or whether they have a disability. Yet, we often find these are the barriers people face in accessing the essential health care they need. It is for this reason that on World Health Day, we’re supporting the World Health Organization’s call for global leaders to commit to advancing the health of all people, to advance progress towards universal health coverage (UHC).

“If we are serious about universal health coverage, we must intensify our efforts and our commitment to control, eliminate or eradicate these diseases by 2020.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general

What is universal health coverage?

In its essence, UHC means ensuring all people receive the essential health services they need without being pushed into poverty by paying for them. And with at least half the world’s population not receiving these essential services it is clear to see that action is needed.

When a country invests in UHC it invests in its people and its future. Providing access to essential health care increases life expectancy, reduces poverty, creates jobs and encourages economic growth.

How NTD programmes can drive progress toward universal health coverage

One area that has made great strides is the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). As the name suggests, these have historically been overlooked. They affect the poorest and most marginalised people, who are often living in some of the hardest to reach settings. They can cause blindness, disability, malnutrition and anaemia, stunted growth, social stigma, chronic pain and even death.

NTD programmes epitomise the principles of UHC. They provide treatments to billions around the world and they do not discriminate. They reach those in the most remote areas and strengthen community bonds by using local people with local knowledge.

Given that these diseases are preventable and treatable, countries that want to achieve UHC must intensify efforts and commitments to ending these medieval diseases.

Tablets are poured into someone's hand

Photo: © ITI

United in partnership

In 2012, pharmaceutical companies, donors, endemic countries and non-government organizations came together to sign the London Declaration, which committed to beating 10 NTDs by 2020 and in the process improve the lives of over 1.5 billion people.

This unique public-private partnership across the 10 different diseases works together to deliver donated drugs to individuals, increase diagnosis within communities and ease access to necessary treatments. This delivery platform minimises out-of-pocket costs and travel for those at risk whilst maximising coverage.

Success is evident. In 2016 alone:

  • over 1 billion people were protected with over 1.8 billion donated drugs
  • over 1 million health workers were trained, which helped deliver a record-breaking number of operations for trichiasis, the leading infectious cause of blindness.

We have seen health workers in Niger delivering drugs to homesteads 5km apart on foot in 45°C heat, violent sandstorms, and with security risks. And we have seen advancements in community diagnosis tools in Uganda for the deadly human African trypanosomiasis, meaning communities can now diagnose those at risk locally preventing a 25km journey.

These successes – along with integrating NTD interventions with the delivery of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, family planning tools and vitamin A supplements – have helped to strengthen health systems and build resilience in areas most at risk.

Reaching everyone, everywhere

Progress should be celebrated. 23 countries have eliminated at least one NTD since 2012 and populations at risk have been reduced. This is an extraordinary achievement, but 1.5 billion people are still at risk and we must not leave them behind. This is not health for all, if it is not reaching everyone, everywhere.

With the drugs available and ready, and NGOs and health workers primed to deliver, what is needed now is political support and a final push with funding. At $0.50 cents per treatment, per person, this really is a best buy in public health and in the journey towards UHC.

The pathway to UHC needs to start with the poorest and hardest to reach populations. It needs to start with those living in areas affected by neglected tropical diseases.

For more information on NTDs and UHC, read our Ending NTDs – a gateway to UHC section in our fifth progress report of the London Declaration.

This article was written for World Health Day on 7 April 2018.