Director-General's Office

World Health Day

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

Colombo, Sri Lanka
7 April 2018

Your Excellency President Maithripala Sirisena;

And your Excellency my brother Rajitha Senaratne;

Your Excellency, Minister of Health of the Maldives, Abdulla Nazim;

My sister Dr. Poonam;

WHO colleagues, not only attending here but throughout the world;

Health professionals in this room and throughout the world;

And above all, people we serve;

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a real privilege for me to be here in Sri Lanka to celebrate World Health Day with you today.

As you know, today is WHO’s 70th birthday. When I was told earlier this year that Sri Lanka is also celebrating its 70th birthday this year – 70 years of independence – I knew that this was the perfect place to mark this milestone, as His Excellency the minister said earlier.

Not just because we share the same age, but because we share the same conviction: that everyone should be able to access health services when and where they need them, without worrying about whether they can afford them.

This is not just a lofty ideal to which you pay lip-service; it’s an everyday reality.

Health care in Sri Lanka, as has been said earlier, has been free at the point of delivery since 1952, very shortly after you gained independence.

As a result, although Sri Lanka is classified as a lower-middle income country, it has the health profile of many high-income countries.

Almost every woman who gives birth does so with a skilled birth attendant.

Almost every child receives routine immunizations.

You’ve defeated malaria, eliminated lymphatic filiarisis and maternal and neonatal tetanus.

And Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia to ratify the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and also the first to fully implement the framework.

That’s one of the reasons I was pleased to invite His Excellency President Sirisena to co-chair WHO’s High-Level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases. Thank you, your Excellency, for being gracious enough to accept that invitation.

Of course, no health system is perfect. Like every country, you face challenges and strains. By making investments in health information systems, you can ensure you have better data for making decisions and allocating resources.

Noncommunicable diseases now account for 75% of diseases here in Sri Lanka. As your population gets older, the demands for care and the costs of providing it will continue to rise. The challenges have already been outlined by the minister; I don’t want to repeat them here.

The best investments will be in promoting health and preventing diseases, rather than treating people when they turn up in your hospitals. And I commend the government for focusing on primary healthcare and the family medicine approach, as His Excellency the minister already said, which is in line with health promotion and disease prevention.

The best way to achieve, to provide those preventive services is at the primary care level, which is the bedrock of every health system.

Not only is this year the 70th anniversary of WHO’s founding, it’s also the 40th anniversary of the Alma-Ata Declaration, which identified primary care as the foundation of “Health for All”.

But 40 years later, we must admit that we are far from achieving that vision, as a global community.

Globally, more than 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.

We cannot accept a world like that.

No one should have to choose between buying medicine and buying food for their family.

No one should have to choose between death and poverty.

That’s why WHO’s new 5-year strategic plan sets a target to see 1 billion more people with universal health coverage by 2023.

This is what we must do to stay on track for achieving the UHC target in the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Earlier this year I wrote to every head of state globally, asking them to take 3 concrete steps towards universal health coverage.

Yes, it’s ambitious. But unless we aim high, we will continue to leave people behind.

But UHC is not a pipedream for the future. It is a reality now, and we should make it a reality now.

Just this year several countries have announced plans to move closer to UHC.

In January I was in Kenya, where President Kenyatta has recently announced that affordable healthcare will be one of four pillars for his second term in office.

And your neighbours India have recently announced a large increase in their health budget, which will create 150,000 health and wellness centres, and benefit 500 million people, which is equivalent to 100 million families.

From Botswana to Brazil, Thailand to Turkey, and from the Solomon Islands to Sri Lanka, countries in all regions, at all income levels, are making progress with the resources they have.

There is no single path to UHC. Every country must find its own way in the context of its own social, political and economic circumstances. Making health services truly universal requires a shift from designing health systems around disease and institutions towards health services designed around and for people.

Universal health coverage is an idea, a concept, but it’s not an abstract.

Around the world, UHC is a reality that is saving lives, giving people dignity and enabling them to contribute to their communities.

When I think of universal health coverage, I don’t think of an idea. I think of the people I have met who are living proof of the value of UHC.

I think of Lucy Watts, the young woman I met in London earlier this year who has a neuromuscular disease that means she has been dependent on a wheelchair since she was 14 years old. But thanks to the U.K.’s National Health Service, Lucy has access to quality palliative care that means she has a reasonable quality of life.

I think about the man I met in Thailand in January who was once bedridden with kidney problems. But thanks to Thailand’s UHC programme, he’s alive and working.

I think about Sanath Kumar, who I met just yesterday. Sanath suffered severe spinal injuries 30 years ago, and was told he would only ever be able to walk with crutches. He was treated at the Rhemuataology and Rehabilitation Hospital in Ragama, here in Colombo, which I had the honour to visit yesterday. Now he plays sports and works as a mechanic at the hospital. And he was very proud to show me all the medals he got from his sports competitions.

But I don’t think only of the people who receive care. I think of those who give it, who give service.

I think about the health professionals I met last July in Yemen, who continue to provide care even though they have not been paid their salaries in months.

I think about the community health workers I met in Rwanda, who serve their communities as volunteers.

And I think about Dr. Carlo Urbani. I didn’t know his story until last week, when I met his family in Geneva. Carlo was a WHO staff member working in WHO’s office in Vietnam in 2003. He was the first person to identify SARS as a new and deadly disease. His work saved the lives of others, but in the process of his investigations, he himself contracted the SARS virus and died. He identified SARS, but he died of SARS himself. He is the model for WHO and the reason why WHO exists.

All these stories illustrate the power of universal health coverage.

It doesn’t only improve health. It reduces poverty. It creates jobs and economic growth. It helps to protect populations against outbreaks and other health emergencies. It reduces inequalities.

But more importantly, it restores dignity and gives hope for the future. It helps people and communities to thrive.

UHC would be the right thing to do even if none of those things were true, because human health is an end in itself. But the benefits of UHC make it a no-brainer.

Yes, financial investments are required to build strong health systems that deliver quality services.

But that’s exactly what they are: investments, not costs. They’re investments in a safer, fairer and more prosperous future.

The question therefore is not whether countries can afford to invest in their health systems; the question is whether they can afford not to.

I will repeat this: the question therefore is not whether countries can afford to invest in their health systems; the question is whether they can afford not to.

Ladies and gentlemen, Your Excellency the president,

In some cultures it’s traditional to make a wish on your birthday.

Today, on our 70th birthday, WHO’s wish is health for everyone, everywhere.

I thank you. Obata stutiyi.