Director-General's Office

Opening speech at Prix Galien International

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Dakar, Senegal
27 November 2018

Your Excellency Macky Sall, Monsieur le Président,

Excellency Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr,

Dr Awa Marie Coll Seck,

Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi,

Mr Bruno Cohen, Ms Marion Wiesel,

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,


It’s an honour to be with you today for this prestigious event.

I congratulate Senegal and Your Excellency the President for hosting the first Prix Galien International in Africa.

The Prix Galien honours outstanding achievement in two areas that are critical to human health: science and innovation.

Staging this event in Africa is a significant statement that science and innovation are needed as much here in Africa as anywhere else – perhaps even more so.

As you may know, this year marks WHO’s 70th anniversary.

Over the past 70 years, science and innovation have led us to major gains in global health.

Life expectancy has increased by 25 years

Smallpox has been eradicated and polio will soon join it.

Thanks to the work of Professor Barré-Sinoussi and others, we have turned the tide on the HIV epidemic.

New vaccines have prevented the deaths of millions of children.

New treatments for hepatitis C are curing a once-incurable disease.

We have mapped human DNA and are continuing to push back the frontiers of science in cancer therapy, gene therapy and many other areas of medicine.

Indeed, each of the nominees for the Prix Galien International is an example of outstanding science and innovation to alleviate a cause of human suffering.

These are all reasons to celebrate.

But we must also acknowledge that not everyone has enjoyed the benefits of these advances.

Progress in medicine and public health have not been enjoyed by all.

Too many people have been left behind – because they are poor. Because they live in remote areas. Because they belong to a minority group. Because they are women.

Some of the treatments I mentioned for hepatitis C and cancer remain out of the reach of many who need them.

Children still die from vaccine-preventable illnesses.

Women still die in childbirth from complications that are commonly treated in most countries.

But the greatest inequity is the absence of universal health coverage.

Today, 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 by the costs of paying for care out of their own pockets.

This inequity leaves individuals and families trapped in a cycle of poverty and disease from which it is very difficult to escape.

But it also leaves nations and the entire world vulnerable to the threat of epidemics.

Health systems and health security are two sides of the same coin. We are only as strong as our weakest link.

In Africa, access to health services are the lowest of any region globally.

But there are strong signs of progress, including here in Senegal.

After his election in 2012, His Excellency the President made a commitment to achieve universal health coverage by 2022.

I know from my own experience that political commitment at the highest level of government is key to achieving universal health coverage.

Mr President, I congratulate you for your commitment. It has produced results.

Access to services has now increased to 50% of the population. Although much remains to be done, this is strong progress.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The agenda for this Galien Forum highlights many of the key challenges that are facing health systems around the world, especially here in Africa.

Each of them requires solutions based on world-class science and innovation.

Access to medicines is one of the pillars of universal health coverage.

But today, medicines remain unaffordable for many people. In some developing countries, up to 90% of the population pay for medicines out of their own pockets.

That forces people to make choices no one should ever have to make – between buying the medicine to save a sick child, and buying food to feed the family.

With the shift towards noncommunicable diseases that require long-term treatment, the financial burden of medicines will become even greater.

This is not just a problem in low- and middle-income countries. Wealthy countries with ageing populations are also grappling with the sustainability of their health systems as the costs of care increase.

We need innovative ideas about how to increase the affordability of medicines, while continuing to provide incentives for manufacturers.

That leads to the questions of insurance and health system financing, another theme of this forum.

WHO does not prescribe any single health financing model. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

But no country has made much progress towards a universal system by relying on voluntary prepayment for health services.

Mandatory or automatic entitlement to benefits is essential, with a predominant reliance on public sources of funding.

This is especially true in low- and middle-income countries, where large parts of population work in the informal sector.

But universal health coverage means so much than health insurance. It means so much more than health care.

It means ensuring people have all the conditions they need to be healthy and thrive.

Many of those conditions lie outside the health sector – like food and nutrition.

Unhealthy diets and malnutrition are responsible for almost 1 in 3 deaths globally.

Stunting and wasting have long-term consequences for the health of millions of children.

And although stunting is decreasing globally, more and more children are overweight or obese.

Addressing this double burden of malnutrition is vital for ensuring the health of future populations and fighting the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases.

This requires an all-of-government approach to ensure food security, promote physical activity and healthy and sustainable diets.

And we cannot do any of that without addressing the challenges of climate change and pollution.

Human health depends on the health of our planet. Which is why earlier this year WHO launched a new initiative to address the health effects of climate change, especially in small island developing states.

Just last month we also held the first global conference on air pollution and health.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I leave you with three challenges.

First, we must rise to the challenge of ensuring that all people benefit from innovation in medicines and health products, as we work together towards universal health coverage.

Second, we must rise to the challenge of innovating not just in medicines, but in every area of the health system, from financing to the health workforce and service delivery.

And third, we must rise to the challenge of investing in science and innovation here in Africa.

The population of this great continent is predicted to double by 2040. The energy and ideas of Africa’s young people will be its greatest asset. We must make sure we take advantage of that asset, not only for the good of Africa, but for the good of the whole world.

I look forward to the day when we will celebrate an African winner of the Prix Galien. May that day come soon.

I thank you.