Universal health coverage is top priority for new WHO chief

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the London Summit on Family Planning. (Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)

The next head of the World Health Organization has yet to take office, but he is already talking about his top priority: universal health coverage.

“All roads should lead to universal health coverage,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his first press conference since being elected to replace outgoing WHO chief Margaret Chan.

Universal health coverage has long been a major priority for this health branch of the United Nations. The idea, proposed many decades ago, is that everyone in the world should be guaranteed access to basic healthcare, regardless of location or economic status. It should be noted that this is something not yet achieved by the United States and, until quite recently, not widely or strongly pushed by many in the American global health community. Some critics still contend it is too vague a concept.

Yet despite the weak American support for universal health coverage, it is gaining momentum across the world with the signing of a global compact to achieve universal health coverage (UHC) by 2030.

The new WHO chief Tedros, who goes by his first name, gives the movement a boost with his public remarks. It has some big-name boosters including Save the Children, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank. Advocates argue that it is necessary to achieve the major health goals set out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

“What the world promised when WHO was instituted in 1948 – health for all – is true (as a goal) today, but half of our population still does not have access to healthcare, universal health coverage,” Tedros said. “I think it’s time to walk our talk. The whole world is asking for that…health as a rights issue, an end in itself.”

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The former Ethiopian health minister takes over WHO as it undergoes reforms stemming from problems with its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 10,000 people. The reputation of the global health coordinating body took a hit as a result of its Ebola response, meaning Tedros will be tasked with initiating reforms and building back international trust.

But there are some red flags in his past that leave some questioning whether Tedros will champion transparency and accountability. They revolve around his time serving as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health. He is accused of helping the Ethiopian government cover up three cholera outbreaks while serving as the country’s top health official.

The accusations were brushed aside by Tedros and his supporters, arguing that the charges were leveled by rival David Nabarro’s camp in the WHO chief campaign process. Tedros and the Ethiopian government still contend that the three incidents were only “acute watery diarrhea” and not cholera. News reports at the time indicate there may have been an effort by the government to withhold information.

Concerns remain, but the focus now is on encouraging Tedros to lead the WHO in a positive direction. With the continuing problem of Zika spreading across the world and an Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo, coordinating a quick response to infectious diseases is still a major area of focus for the organization.

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“He must restore strong confidence in the role of the WHO and its global credibility in being able to rapidly address, manage and contain emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Alison Holmes of the Imperial College in London, said in a statement. “It must have the capacity and structures, as well as expertise, to be rapidly responsive and effective.”

The long-term solution to such problems is found in improving health systems and, according to advocates, achieving universal health coverage. It means improving healthcare for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable by ensuring that health facilities are nearby, high quality and affordable.

“Inequality is one of the main challenges for health,” Emma Iriarte, head of the Salud Mesoamerica Initiative, said to AlertNet. “Bringing quality health services to the most disadvantaged, especially women and children, is a priority for public institutions and the new director of the WHO.”

Each of the three final candidates pledged to enact reforms, expand universal health coverage and equip the WHO to better deal with pandemics. Tedros may have stood out from the rest of the contenders due to his experience helping build up Ethiopia’s health system, expand coverage and deliver better health outcomes. The hope is that he can achieve similar success at the helm of the WHO.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.