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World Health Assembly Special Event: The Journey to UHC

Posted on 5 June 2015

Report on an afternoon of creative and productive discussions exploring the successes, challenges and future possibilities on the road to health for all.

The World Health Assembly, held annually in Geneva, Switzerland is the supreme decision-making body of World Health Organization. More than 3000 delegates from WHO’s 194 Member States – including a large proportion of the world’s health ministers – attended the 68th Assembly in May 2015.

This year, WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories (WHOCGHH) and the WHO Global Health Histories project were once again well represented at the assembly. 2015’s activities focussed around a special event ‘Universal Health Coverage through Primary Health Care: Successes, Challenges and Future Possibilities’ and the official launch of WHOCGHH’s latest publication ‘Health for All: The Journey to Universal Health Coverage’.

Assembly Special Event

The special event was sponsored by the Sri Lankan Health Ministry, co-organised with the WHO Department for Knowledge, Ethics and Research, and supported generously by the Wellcome Trust. It was co-chaired by Dr Neelamani Hewageegana (Deputy Director General of Health Services Planning, Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka) and Dr Najeeb Al-Shorbaji (Director of Knowledge, Ethics and Research Development, WHO) who introduced the afternoon’s diverse programme to a capacity audience at WHO headquarters. Dr Al-Shorbaji highlighted that the GHH seminar series is recognised as a platform not only for sharing experience and learning lessons from history, but also as a venue for convening experts and experienced public health professionals from all over the world, different disciplines and cultures. He went on to add that “this particular special event on Universal Health Coverage brought country experience of Brazil and Sri Lanka and global perspectives on anti-microbial resistance and faith-based organizations. Choosing UHC, one of the targets for the health Sustainable Development Goals, is not only timely but also of special importance as the world has to learn what countries have done towards its achievement, how to avoid mistakes, and never reinvent the wheel.”

First in the schedule was a presentation from Dr Susie Perera (Director, Organization Development, Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka) which offered a detailed examination of the challenges of UHC in Sri Lanka, affording the audience fascinating historical insights before bringing them through to present times. Reflecting on the special event, Dr Perera reiterated that, “Sri Lanka's position on Universal Health Coverage is shifting from what was known to be an efficient and effective system for treating conditions of communicable disease, and improving maternal and child health through a Primary Health Care system.  Different strategies are used in different countries to achieve UHC, and our engagement with the Brazilian experience demonstrated this to us. The Sri Lankan presentation at this special WHA event highlighted the challenges facing - and future directions needed in - the reorganisation of the country's primary care services. This option is being considered carefully, but we remain careful to ensure that our financing methods remain both robust and sustainable in the long term.  A consideration in this regard would be issues like antimicrobial resistance, which are sometimes overlooked in relation to the national health burden and UHC delivery. To this end, the Ministry of Health & Indigenous Medicine appreciates the effort taken by the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories, also representing the United Kingdom's University of York, to organize this special WHA event on behalf of - and in partnership with - the Ministry.” Dr Hooman Momen (Fiocruz/Federal Health Ministry of Brazil) followed Dr Perera with a report on UHC development and democracy in Brazil. His presentation outlined some of the different goals and strategies used in the different political environments in Brazil on the path to UHC. Both Dr Perera and Dr Momen are authors of chapters in ‘Health for All’ and their presentations treated the audience to insights into these contributions.

Next was a lively and inspiring talk from Professor Didier Pittet (Geneva University Hospital). The renowned professor took the audience through a significant challenge for UHC, the threat of antimicrobial resistance, a major problem which we do not quite know how to handle. Professor Pittet inspired the audience with the warning that ‘the rich pay with their wallets, the poor pay with their lives’, which left a deep impression on the audience and was repeated throughout the afternoon. Concluding the first session of presentations, it was a pleasure to hear from another book contributor, Ms Sally Smith (Senior Advisor on Community Mobilization, UNAIDS, who was seconded to the WHO response to the Ebola crisis in Western Africa), who elaborated on the complexities between UHC and faith based organisations.

Official Book Launch

The presentations were followed by the official launch of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories’ publication, ‘Health for All: The Journey to Universal Health Coverage’, which appears in English and Portuguese. Prepared with support from the University of York, UK, and in partnership with Fiocruz, Rio De Janeiro (a branch of the Brazilian Federal Health Ministry), this volume collects together chapters based on the 2014 WHO Global Health Histories seminar series and associated activities. Professor Magali Romero Sá (Vice Director for Research , Education and Science Communication, Fiocruz) notes that, ‘the publication ‘Health for All: The Journey to Universal Health Coverage’ reinforces the importance of the universal access to health by discussing historically relevant subjects and drawing sceneries to promote global health care and social development.  Fiocruz is proud to be part of the WHO Global Health Histories project that is involved in the broader goal of striving for better quality of life and more health equity for all, which goes in accordance with Fiocruz´s premise of strengthening a more equitable participation by less developed countries in the globalization flow.’

Health for All: The Journey to Universal Health Coverage Cover

The book is available for download via the University of York Online Digital Library

The book and special event were perfect accompaniments, drawing together historical perspectives with contemporary concerns. Indeed, the GHH project’s mission, whole-heartedly supported by the Department of History and the Centre for Global Health Histories at York, is based on the principle that understanding the history of health, especially during the last 60 years, helps the global public health community to respond to the challenges of today and help shape a healthier future for everyone, especially those most in need. Copies of the book were made available to the audience and Professor Bhattacharya made clear that the book will soon be available as a free download. Dr Henrice Altink, the incoming Head of the University of York’s Department of History, praised the publication as an excellent and very timely contribution; “the book and articles within, written by leading academics and practitioners, amply illustrate the Centre's aim to work with partners from all over the world and also to cross the boundaries between history and policy. I have no doubts that, like the preceding publications in the series, this one will be enjoyed and utilised by a wide audience.”  Professor Deborah Smith, York’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, added that “The University of York aims to conduct research of the highest quality that has the potential to be both world leading and world changing. The Centre for Global Health Histories aligns with this ambition through the WHO Global Health Histories project, which is driving inter-disciplinary research, policy design and health campaign evaluation working in partnership with the WHO and the Wellcome Trust.”

Of the WHO Global Health Histories project, Dr Marie-Paule Kieny (Assistant Director-General, Health Systems and Innovation, World Health Organization) noted that it had been “very active for more than a decade. The monthly seminars that underpin it have allowed the discussion of a variety of themes crucial in global health, and the production of effective public and policy engagement materials. I am delighted at the official launch the book on Universal Health Coverage, which is certain to stoke productive discussions within the WHO Secretariat, its Member States and its international networks. This book powerfully demonstrates the great value of partnerships, as we continually forge a global alliance to tackle some of the world's greatest health challenges. In this case, we celebrate our partnerships with the Wellcome Trust and the UK's University of York, both of whom have worked with us over several years to make the WHO GHH project what it is today. This is an initiative that allows us to learn from careful discussions about the past, collect information about cultural and social specificities that are important for policy design and implementation, and help governments and societies cope with existing and emergent challenges. As this special event highlighted, the achievement of UHC is very important for the global community as a whole. Indeed, sound, well-funded and equitably run national healthcare structures are most effective means of countering pandemic threats and the growing danger from antibiotic resistance.”

There was just enough time, following the book launch, to take questions from an eager audience. In truth, such was the appetite to know more, the event could have lasted much longer but owing to the pressing schedule of the assembly Dr Hewageegana and Dr Al-Shorbaji wrapped up proceedings by thanking speakers, attendees, organisers and funders for making this an incredibly successful and much enjoyed WHA special event. CGHH would like to echo those thanks: to organise an event with such a bulging programme, tight schedule and fascinating interactions was testament to enthusiasm of all involved. Reflecting on the event’s activities, Dr Daniel O’Connor, Head of Humanities and Social Science at the Wellcome Trust says that “this report shows how the work of the Global Health Histories project goes from strength to strength. The Wellcome Trust is delighted to be supporting research that demonstrates how historical perspectives from across the world are essential not just to our understanding of global health, but to our efforts to improve it in the future.”

With the Global Health Histories series approaching the one hundred seminar mark, the series is in rude health and we can anticipate much more to come in the mission to show that understanding the history of health can help the global public health community to respond to the challenges of today and help shape a healthier future for everyone.





Dr Hewageegana and Dr Al-Shorbaji introduce the event


Dr Susie Perera


Professor Bhattacharya launches the book


Professor Didier Pittet


Ms Sally Smith