World Health Day Address by Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific

6 April 2018

Esteemed representatives of the Philippine Government and the Diplomatic Corps;
Friends from media and academia;
Distinguished participants;
Ladies and gentlemen:

Good morning and welcome to the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific. Thank you for joining us to celebrate World Health Day.

This day is always important, but this World Health Day is extra special for two reasons.

First, 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the World Health Organization. Back in 1948 — as the world was recovering from war — the community of nations took the visionary step of creating an organization devoted to global health.

Since then, we have taken huge strides forward for human health. Smallpox has been eradicated. Soon polio will be history. Life expectancy has risen steadily in most of the world since WHO’s founding.

Still, we continue to battle infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, as well as newer diseases such as HIV. But the nature of health threats has changed. Now, we face challenges such as rising rates of noncommunicable disease caused by lifestyle and environmental factors.

But one thing has remained constant – the fundamental right of every human being to the highest attainable standard of health.

This brings me to the second reason why today is so important, because the theme of this year’s World Health Day is Universal Health Coverage – which means health for all: everyone, everywhere. In other words, the very reason WHO was created in the first place.

For us at WHO, Universal Health Coverage, or UHC, is crucially important because it is how we can deliver on ensuring the right of all people to the best possible standard of health. For countries, UHC has the power to improve not only the overall health of the people, but also the development and economic prospects of the entire nation.

Right now, we are falling well short of this ambition. More than half of the world’s people cannot obtain even essential health services.

These trends are moving in the wrong direction. Life is getting even harder for the world’s most vulnerable. Out-of-pocket health expenses push nearly 100 million more people into extreme poverty every year.

This means kids have to abandon school and dreams of a career so tuition money can pay a family member’s medical bills. Others leave jobs – or cannot get jobs – because they have to take care of a sick family member.

High out-of-pocket medical expenses can create a spiral of poverty that sucks down the earnings and savings, then the dreams and hopes, of an entire family.

With Universal Health Coverage, however, vulnerable people and their families would be protected — because people would be able to get the health services they need without financial hardship. Health for all would also be a giant step forward in making the world more equitable.

After all, poverty should not mean a life sentence of poor health.

UHC is not a new idea. It springs from the WHO Constitution’s pledge to help attain the highest possible level of health for all people.

This vision was reinforced 40 years ago, when countries agreed in the Alma-Ata Declaration that primary health care is key to the attainment of Health for All.

Now the Sustainable Development Goals puts health in its rightful place — at the centre of the global development agenda.

UHC has become the platform for achieving other health targets. By focusing on the social determinants of health, the Sustainable Development Goals bring together all sectors of government and society to address health issues.

Our task now is to make certain this political momentum turns into real action that benefits real people.

In celebrating World Health Day, it is important to reflect on where we stand, and how to get closer to the Health for All vision.

My starting point, as Regional Director of WHO’s most populous and diverse region, is to look first at how we can best support countries’ efforts. Where will WHO support make a real difference?

All six WHO regions have charted their own paths to UHC. Member States of the Western Pacific Region endorsed a country-specific approach to advancing UHC in 2015.

We recognized that different countries require different approaches — depending on what is in place, their resources and capacity and, of course, political commitment.

Service coverage and financial protection are essential components. But UHC is much more than that. UHC is about equity, quality, efficiency and accountability, resilience and sustainability. These are the hallmarks of high-performing health systems built on the principles of UHC.

The Western Pacific framework identifies areas where action is needed to deliver on these health system attributes.

For example, to assure good quality of health services, a country must have appropriate regulatory standards and a competent health workforce.

To achieve equity, financial protection and access are critical, but so too are strategies to reach those likely to be left behind.

A resilient health system is not only about investing in essential public health functions to ensure preparedness, but also building community capacity to address health hazards and risks.

Countries prioritize these actions in different ways, depending on their circumstances and level of development.

No single country has all the answers.

But together, countries offer lessons that we in the development world should pay attention to.

First, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to UHC. Each country has to determine its own path.

Second, support must be based on the priorities of countries — not those of development partners. We can advise and support countries based on their situation, bringing together the best international experience and knowledge with a clear idea of what is feasible.

And finally, the long history of UHC shows us that the path of progress is not always linear. The journey will not always be easy – but the goal is clear.

We are at a unique point in history. We have the resources, technology, the know-how and the global commitment to finally make UHC a reality. We can finally ensure that the basic human right to health is a reality for everyone.

I hope that this World Health Day will help to accelerate progress towards Universal Health Coverage – and health for all.

We owe it to the billions of people around the world who do not have access to the health services they need right now. They cannot wait any longer. They need us to get on with the job.

Please join hands with us in the campaign to make Universal Health Coverage a reality.

Thank you.