By Mary Hearty

As the World Health Organization (WHO) commemorated its 75th anniversary on World Health Day themed “Health for All”, African Member States were urged to renew their commitment to health equity through universal health coverage (UHC), terming it as the tool by which health for all is achieved.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said Universal UHC represents the aspiration that quality health services should be received by everyone when and where needed, without incurring financial hardships.

“Let us renew our determination, strengthen our partnership and be innovative in our efforts to progress towards “Health for All” in Africa through stronger health services that offer holistic people-centered care to empowered and engaged communities,” she said.

Dr. Moeti added that scaling up essential health services and coverage with key interventions has yielded results, especially in the area of HIV and TB.

Between 2011 and 2021, new HIV infections in the WHO African Region were reduced by 44% and AIDS-related deaths by 55%.  TB deaths in the region fell by 26% between 2015 and 2021.

In the past 20 years alone, she noted, smoking has fallen by a third, maternal mortality has fallen by a third and child mortality has halved. Additionally, in the past five years, new vaccines for Ebola and malaria have been developed and licensed.

Meanwhile, it is reported that since 2000, the number of people who experience financial hardship from out-of-pocket health spending has increased by a third, to almost two billion.

In this case, Dr. Moeti advised that ensuring additional investment to improve financial risk protection, addressing inequities, and building the resilience of national health systems in the post-COVID era are critical to our efforts to accelerate progress toward UHC in the African Region.

Although many achievements have been made, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said many challenges still exist – some old, some new.

For example, around the world, people still face vast disparities in access to health services, between and within countries and communities. Since 2000, access to essential services has increased significantly, but at least half the world’s population still lacks access to one or more services like family planning, basic sanitation, or access to a health worker.

“About half of Africa’s citizens (48%) – some 672 million people – still do not have access to the health care they need,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said.

“This results from weak health systems characterized by inadequate health infrastructure; poorly designed policies to limit financial barriers to health services; shortage of qualified health workers; inadequate access to quality medicines, medical products, and innovative technologies.”

He thus called for strengthening health systems based on strong primary health care (PHC) in order to build back better and accelerate progress toward universal health coverage and health security.

Also, financial investment in PHC oriented by the building blocks of health systems, particularly a health workforce, health infrastructure, medicines and health technologies, should be supported and guided by evidence, Dr. Ghebreyesus added.

Other emerging challenges highlighted by WHO include: Non-communicable diseases now account for more than 70 percent of all deaths globally. Rates of diabetes and obesity have increased dramatically, driven by unhealthy diets and physical inactivity.

In addition, progress against malaria and TB has stalled; Antimicrobial resistance threatens to unwind a century of medical progress; Air pollution and climate change are jeopardizing the very habitability of our planet; And as COVID-19 has exposed so brutally, there remain serious gaps in the world’s defenses against epidemics and pandemics.

“The history of WHO demonstrates what is possible when nations come together for a common purpose,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said.

“We have much to be proud of, but much work to do to realize our founding vision of the highest attainable standard of health for all people. We continue to face vast inequities in access to health services, major gaps in the world’s defenses against health emergencies, and threats from health-harming products and the climate crisis. We can only meet these global challenges with global cooperation.”

Looking forward to the next 75 years and close to the turn of the next century, a renewed commitment to health equity will be the key to addressing future health challenges.