Director-General's Office

The right to health

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium
20 November 2018

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon, and thank you for having me. It’s a real honour to be with you in the European Parliament. I have been here with you before, which shows our strong partnership.

The last two days have been extremely fruitful for deepening the relationship between WHO and the EU. There has been a significant increase in the EU’s support for WHO this year, and we have agreed to take our relationship to an even higher level.

Yesterday I spoke to the DG ECHO annual partnership meeting about WHO’s work on emergencies, and I’ve also had the opportunity to discuss global health issues with President Juncker, Commissioner Andriukaitis, Commissioner Mimica, Commissioner Stylianides, Commissioner Vella and Director-General Paquet.

I’d like to thank each of them for their time, their support and their trust.

As you know, 2018 is a significant year for WHO – it’s our 70th birthday.

And it’s also the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Both WHO’s constitution and the declaration assert that health is a human right, not a privilege for those who can afford it.

Over time, that right has made its way into both national and international law.

Many countries now have the right to health in their statute books.

And we now have two international health treaties – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which entered into force just this year.

We also have the International Health Regulations, a legally binding document which governs global health security.

The EU has been a strong supporter of multilateral health treaties, and we thank you for that support.

But importantly, the right to health is not simply a noble idea on a piece of paper.

In the past 70 years, it has been a platform for major improvements in global health.

Since 1948, life expectancy has increased by 25 years.

Maternal and childhood mortality have plummeted.

Smallpox has been eradicated and polio is on the brink.

We have turned the tide on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Deaths from malaria have dropped dramatically.

New vaccines have made once-feared diseases easily preventable.

And there are many other causes for celebration.

But even as we continue to struggle with old threats, new ones have arisen.

Climate change will have profound effects on health.

Antimicrobial resistance has the potential to undo the gains of modern medicine.

Vaccine hesitancy is putting millions of young lives at risk.

Noncommunicable diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancer diabetes, hypertension, lung diseases and mental illnesses have become the major killers of our time.

And of course, we continue to face the ever-present threat of outbreaks and other health emergencies.

In the past 12 months, WHO has responded to 47 emergencies in 50 countries.

As you know, we are currently responding to an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, very near the border with Uganda.

As of today, there have been 373 cases and 216 deaths since the outbreak started in August.

So far, we have managed to prevent Ebola from spreading across the border, partly because we have much better tools with which to fight Ebola than at any time in history.

More than 32,000 people have been vaccinated, which is one of the reasons the outbreak has not spread further than it has.

We also have investigational therapeutics to treat those infected. So far, 150 people have been treated with one of four drugs.

14 million travelers have been screened, there have been more than 190 safe and dignified burials, we have done door-to-door advocacy in almost 4000 households and we have trained more than 500 community leaders.

All of this is possible because of the strong leadership of the government, supported by WHO and many other partners.

But this outbreak has been much more difficult ton control, largely because of the security situation in eastern DRC.

Armed groups operating in the area conduct regular attacks on the city of Beni, the epicentre of the outbreak. And every time there is an attack, the virus gets an advantage. Vaccination and contact tracing are disrupted.

Just two weeks ago I visited Beni with Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping.

I was very encouraged to see the way in which the UN family is working as one to deliver results.

Since our visit there have unfortunately been more attacks. Just on Friday night there was an attack that hit accommodation in which our staff are staying.

While the attack was taking place, one of our staff members rang me. I could hear that the gunfire was very close.

Later I had a video call with our staff. I could see they were frightened, and I asked them what they wanted to do. They said they didn’t want to leave, they just wanted more protection so they can do their jobs and end the outbreak.

Every day, I am humbled and inspired by our people – putting themselves at risk to defend the right to health.

That’s what gives me confidence that with the support of all our partners, we can and will end this outbreak.

But as I have said many times – and as I will keep saying – health security and health systems are two sides of the same coin.

The best long-term investment in protecting and promoting the right to health is to invest in stronger health systems.

This is not a new idea. The Alma-Ata declaration 40 years ago identified primary health care as the foundation for achieving health for all.

We all know that the political and economic realities of the intervening years have meant the vision of Alma-Ata has gone unfulfilled.

So in Astana, Kazakhstan last month, the world came together to recommit to that vision.

Because there is simply no other way to achieve universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals than primary health care, with a focus on health promotion and disease prevention.

Achieving that vision will require unrelenting political commitment from countries.

But it will also require WHO and the global health community to work in a much more integrated and coherent way.

That’s why WHO and 10 other international health agencies have agreed to work together on a Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-Being.

We launched phase 1 of the Global Action Plan in Berlin last month, and expect to present the final plan at the UN General Assembly in September next year, during the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage.

The plan has three strategic approaches: align, accelerate and account.

First, we have committed to align many of our processes to increase our collective efficiency.

Second, we have committed to accelerate progress by identifying areas of work in which we can truly bend the curve and make more rapid progress towards the health-related SDGs – like research and development, data and sustainable financing.

And third, we have committed to keep each other accountable, both to the people we serve, and to the donors and partners – like the EU – who expect results from the resources they entrust us with.

Ultimately, the measure of our success is not the number of reports we write, or the meetings we hold, or the amount of money we invest – it’s the lives we change.

It’s children who survive past their fifth birthday.

It’s women who get to choose whether, when and with whom they become pregnant.

It’s men who don’t die prematurely of a noncommunicable disease.

It’s families, communities and nations thriving because their populations are healthy and productive.

And it all begins with the conviction that health is not a privilege for the wealthy, but a right for all.

But the past 70 years demonstrate that health for all is not just a noble slogan – it’s doable.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in Europe.

Many European countries are the standard-bearers for the right to health. This continent is the cradle of universal health coverage.

I think especially of Denmark, the country in which I first had health insurance as a student in the 1980s. That experience left a lasting impression on me.

Europe has a rich array of health systems, with different ways of delivering services and providing financial protection.

But they are all based on the right to health.

These countries did not build their health systems when they were rich. Many of them were built in the aftermath of the Second World War, when they were financially on their knees.

The opposite is true: they became stable and prosperous at least partly because they invested in the right to health.

They made a political commitment.

The same is true today.

There are many other countries around the world, from Rwanda to Thailand and Peru that have in recent years made the political choice to invest in the right to health.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I want to leave you with three requests.

First, we are agreed that health is a rights issue. I urge you to continue advocating for that right here in the EU. Although you have some of the most advanced health systems in the world, there are still equity issues to address in some countries. There is always more work to do to ensure no one is left behind.

Second, I urge you to continue advocating for the right to health globally. To achieve our shared goals, we need the EU’s continued leadership, both politically and in terms of your investments in health.

Those investments are saving and extending lives. But they are doing so much more.

They’re lifting people out of poverty, laying a foundation for sustainable development, and building the healthier, safer, fairer world we all want.

And third, I urge you to support the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-Being.

We are now entering the consultation phase and we want to hear from you. How can we as the global health community work smarter to deliver the SDGs? Where can we eliminate redundancy and duplication? Where can we scale up innovation? We need your ideas.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak to you today, and for your commitment to protecting and promoting the right to health.

Even as we celebrate the 70th birthday of both WHO and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must remember that the right to health is not a given.

It takes renewed political commitment and leadership in every generation – including ours.

Thank you so much.