Director-General's Office

Exchange of views on the importance of health in development European Parliament Committee on Development

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director-General of the World Health Organization


19 March 2018

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you so much for the invitation to come and speak to you today. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you.

The work of the European Parliament, and especially of the Committee on Development, plays a vital in supporting countries to make progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

WHO has worked extensively with the European Union. We have some key joint projects, such as our partnership on universal health coverage, which I hope will continue and expand, and our joint work on access to medicines.

I know you are debating a new mechanism for engaging with civil society. I have great hopes that this new mechanism will enable us to strengthen the emergency medical teams to secure immediate support from well-trained medical staff anywhere in the world.

It’s now been almost 9 months since I started as Director-General. It’s been an intense but productive period. I’d like to start by just giving you a few highlights.

We have focused on laying the foundations for the next 5 years of our work, as well as the long-term future of WHO.

The cornerstone is our General Programme of Work – our 5-year strategic plan, which sets out our mission: to promote health, to keep the world safe, and to serve the vulnerable.

Our Executive Board has now approved the plan and at the World Health Assembly in May we hope and expect that our Member States will formally approve it.

Normally it takes 2 years to develop the next strategic plan, but we did it in just 8 months. We’ve acted with urgency because the challenges we’re facing are too great, and the costs of waiting are too large.

The strategic plan includes three ambitious targets for the next 5 years:

  • to see 1 billion more people enjoying the benefits of universal health coverage
  • to see 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies
  • and to see 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being.

We have started working towards each of these targets.

We’ve advocated for universal health coverage at the highest political levels, and we’re seeing unprecedented momentum for UHC.

We’ve introduced a new approach to our emergency operations, including establishing the WHO Health Security Council, which meets fortnightly to review the status of all health emergencies globally, and how WHO is responding to them.

We’ve established a new High-Level Global Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases, to be led by the President of Uruguay.

We’ve launched an initiative to help small island developing states adapt to the health effects of climate change.

And we continue to ring the alarm bell on antimicrobial resistance.

It’s also clear that to be the WHO the world needs, we must change. So I have launched a process of transforming WHO to make it more focused on delivering results where it matters – in countries.

I have also made a point of keeping my campaign promise to achieve gender parity in WHO’s senior leadership. In fact I’ve done even better. For the first time, women now outnumber men in our senior leadership team. We have more work to do to achieve gender parity at all levels of the organization.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. But it’s also the 100th anniversary of another event that killed far more people than the war itself – the Spanish flu pandemic.

Spanish flu remains the deadliest outbreak in recorded history.

But its lessons are just as relevant today as they were then: that a devastating epidemic can start in any country at any time, and kill millions of people, because we are not prepared, because we’re still vulnerable.

Thankfully, we have not seen a public health emergency on that scale since then. But we may at any time. Outbreaks are a fact of life, and the world remains vulnerable.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck. The H5N1 flu virus which appeared in 2003 is extremely dangerous, but has fortunately not become capable of spreading easily between humans.

Conversely, the H1N1 virus that sparked a global pandemic in 2009 was transmitted very easily between people, but was fortunately mild in most cases.

The most shocking outbreak of our time, of course, was the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

Although it affected three poor West African countries, it exposed fault lines in global health security that put us all at risk.

Apart from its terrible human cost, Ebola also had a devastating economic impact. The IMF reduced its growth projections for the three affected countries. Commodity prices plunged, while unemployment and fiscal deficits rose.

Ebola taught us several painful but valuable lessons. The most important is this: that a fragile health system in one country can potentially expose the world to a global health catastrophe.

When surveillance systems are inadequate, or health workers do not show up to work because they have not been paid in months; or medicines are in short supply; or infection prevention and control is lacking, disaster is just around the corner.

Ultimately, the greatest threat to global health security is the fact that billions of people lack access to essential health services.

Universal health coverage and health security are two sides of the same coin.

But the reality is that at least half the world’s population lacks access to essential health services.

And almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty every year because of the costs of paying for care out of their own pockets.

When people cannot see a health worker close to their home, or cannot afford to use the services that are there, the earliest signals of an outbreak can be missed.

But when people can access quality services without being exposed to financial hardship, a devastating epidemic can be stopped before it starts.

Evidence and experience show that universal health coverage is within reach for all countries, at all income levels. Every nation can do more with the resources it has.

All of this means that for most countries, the only real barrier is political will. Ultimately, universal health coverage is a political choice.

Many countries here in Europe have made that choice. So have China, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

And others are making that choice. Last month I was in Kenya, where President Kenyatta has recently announced that affordable healthcare will be one of the four pillars of the Kenyan economy for his second term in office.

And just a couple of weeks ago, India announced a 12% increase in its health budget, which will benefit 500 million people and establish 150,000 health and wellness centres.

But the benefits of universal health coverage go far beyond health.

Just as epidemics can cripple an economy, universal health coverage can help it grow. Strong, resilient health systems are integral to strong, resilient economies.

When people are healthy, entire communities and nations thrive. When children live to adulthood, they become productive members of society. When women survive childbirth, they can return to working or caring for their families. When communities are free from pollution, harmful products and other causes of disease, they prosper.

We do not know where or when the next global pandemic will occur, but we do know that it will take a terrible toll, both on human life, and on the global economy. It may even cause political instability.

The key, as I said, is to acknowledge that universal health coverage and health security are two sides of the same coin, and to invest in strengthening the fabric of health systems everywhere.

That’s why WHO works all around the world to strengthen health systems, built on the foundation of people-centred primary health care that focuses on health promotion and disease prevention, with a strong focus on surveillance systems.

But I am also taking WHO beyond the technical to the political. We are now seeing unprecedented political momentum for universal health coverage.

On World Health Day – the 7th of April -- we are launching a 2-year-campaign to generate new political commitments on universal health coverage.

And at the World Health Assembly in Geneva in May, we will be issuing a challenge to all countries to take three concrete steps towards making universal health coverage a reality.

The European Union is already a vital partner in our efforts to achieve universal health coverage. Through the EU-Luxembourg-WHO UHC Partnership, you’re supporting health system strengthening in 35countries.

As I said at the beginning, our ambitions are large. They must be. The stakes are too high to aim low.

But if we are to achieve our vision of a healthier, fairer, safer world, we need your support.

Ultimately, your investments are not only improving the health of people in countries outside Europe – they’re creating a safer Europe, and a safer world, by ensuring local outbreaks do not become global pandemics.

This committee can play a key role in ensuring health remains a priority for the EU in the coming years. In the current debate about the financial framework for the next 7 years, it is vital to remember that health and wellbeing are vital for development all over the world.

Without health, there is no growth, no economy, no escape from poverty.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss how we can do even more together.

The only limit is the size of our ambition.

Thank you so much.