72nd World Health Assembly opens with passionate calls for Universal Health Coverage (UHC)

Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the Lancet, speaking at the 72nd World Health Assembly
20 May 2019

20 May 2019 | Geneva, Switzerland – Addressing inequities in health was front and center during the first day of the 72nd World Health Assembly with other key topics including Universal Health Coverage (UHC), access to medicines and the health and wellbeing of refugees and migrants.

Alain Berset, Swiss Interior Minister and former President of the Swiss Confederation, urged the delegates during the opening ceremony to join forces so that the situation for millions of people around the world would improve.

“Access to health care for all remains a major challenge”, he said.  “In the past few years some progress has been made. If we work together, we can really truly change living conditions around the world. Access to health care is an issue of human dignity and humanity.”

According to WHO half of the world’s population does not benefit from full universal health coverage and millions do not have access to adequate treatment.

Dr Richard Charles Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet (pictured above), made a passionate address to the Assembly stressing the importance of Universal Health Coverage as an ethical imperative. “Progress in health is not inevitable”, he pointed out. “Gains we have made are fragile. New risk factors are rising. No country is on track to meet its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) related targets.”

As part of this call to action, Dr Richard Horton stressed that the struggle for health is also a struggle for a just society.

“More people die from poor health care than from not using health care. The global demand for cancer chemotherapy will increase from around ten million people in 2018 to 15 million people by 2040 and two-thirds of those people will live in low- and middle-income settings. Business as usual is not an option. Our progress should be measured by the progress of the most vulnerable.”

This also resonated with 18 years old Natasha Wang Mwansa from Zambia, a Child and Women’s Rights Advocate and Activist, who shook up the Assembly with a powerful speech that admonished governments for making health a ‘political shuttlecock’. Rather than only being discussed at elections, she called upon the delegates to secure ‘Health for All’ as a fundamental right and ensure the voices of young people are part of the conversations right from the start.

In the afternoon, Dr Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization, urged delegates to not only talk but also listen, especially to those who have been ‘left behind’. He shared stories from families living in Kenya and India for whom UHC has become a reality, and set out his vision that there would be no UHC without primary health care (PHC). During his speech, he stressed that PHC is where the battle for UHC would be won or lost.

Leaving no one behind

Looking ahead to the rest of the week and the upcoming negotiations on UHC, it is clear that the global focus on UHC and ‘leaving no one behind’ presents an important opportunity for the global cancer community; UICC representatives are participating in a wide range of side events, in order to be able to advocate for a strong engagement globally, regionally and nationally so that no cancer patient is left behind.

Here are two examples:

Putting patients with multiple chronic conditions at the heart of UHC

The discussion explored the challenges faced by patients living with multiple chronic conditions. The panel and participants called for action by governments and all stakeholders to better coordinate care to address the needs of patients instead of working in silos. Improved coordination would allow for better prevention, diagnosis and care for patients with multiple conditions including cancer.

Addressing the room, Sir George Alleyn, Director Emeritus of the Pan American Health Organization, called on the cancer and NCD community to ‘be part of the movement that works towards UHC, because it affects all’. Meanwhile, Muthoni Mate, Founder of the Cancer Café, Kenya, declared that she was ‘part of the statistics’ but that she did not just want to be a number in cancer nationally.

Access to medicines, vaccines and health products: a multi dimension approach ensuring transparency of markets, affordable and quality products to achieve UHC.

This discussion was brought together by 16 member states, including Italy, which is championing the proposed resolution on transparency. A number of member states took the floor during the discussion to express concern over the rising cost of medicines, both innovative new products (such as immunotherapy) but also those that are no longer under patent (such as insulin).

The argument that reasonable medicine prices are an integral part of achieving UHC was raised on a number of occasions. The discussions also explored the issues resulting from a lack of information sharing on pricing and called for increased transparency.

For immediate updates throughout WHA (#WHA72) please follow @uicc on Twitter or watch the 72nd World Health Assembly live here.

Main photo: Dr Richard Charles Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet addressing the Assembly
Source: Screen capture from 72nd WHA's webcast. 

Resource Information
Last update: 
Friday 7 June 2019