Regional Director’s Address at the Global World Health Day 2018 Event

7 April 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka

His Excellency Maithripala Sirisena, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka; Hon’ble Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine Dr Rajitha Seneratne; WHO Director General Dr Tedros; Hon’ble Minister of Health of Maldives Mr Abdulla Nazim; distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

The promise of universal health coverage is bold: that all people can access quality health services, when and where they need them, without suffering financial hardship.

UHC’s benefits are clear. We know them well.

Universal access to good quality health services improves health and wellbeing – a fundamental human right.

Healthier populations in turn create more productive economies that raise living standards.

UHC strengthens health security by making it easier to contain the spread of infectious disease and respond effectively to natural disasters.

The case for UHC is decisive: health, equity, development and security. As you appreciate, UHC’s revolutionary promise can – and must – be fully harnessed.

Nevertheless, as we mark World Health Day and focus on this year’s theme, let us also appreciate an important truth: that to be credible, a promise must be based on trust. It must be based on the trust and belief that concerted action is being taken to achieve a specific end.

It is therefore fitting that this event should be held here in Sri Lanka, a country that has long championed UHC’s revolutionary power and potential. More than that, Sri Lanka’s leaders have long inspired trust in their ability to deliver on UHC’s promise.

So I thank Your Excellency for hosting this event. It is yet another demonstration of Sri Lanka’s commitment to UHC.

The strength and reach of your primary health care system is, however, of greater consequence. Sri Lanka now has close to 500 Primary Medical Care units spread across more than 340 catchment areas. The strength and quality of this system has allowed you to make substantial progress in all areas of health. Two stand out in particular.

First, through high-quality ante-natal services and community-based follow-up, Sri Lanka has achieved path-breaking outcomes in women’s and children’s health. I congratulate Your Excellencies for reaching the Sustainable Development Goal targets for maternal mortality and under-5 child mortality much ahead of time. We are immensely proud of your spectacular achievement.

And second, through your strong routine immunization programme – a core part of your primary health system – you have protected millions of your citizens from vaccine-preventable diseases. By the turn of the millennium you had already eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus. More recently you have made rapid progress in your push to eliminate measles and control rubella, one of our Region’s Flagship Priorities.

In noting these stunning outcomes – Sri Lanka’s outcomes – another outcome becomes noteworthy. And that is that UHC – and the strong, accessible health systems it requires – complements and contributes to other core public health priorities such as health security and disease-specific elimination programmes.

Take Sri Lanka’s recent elimination of malaria and lymphatic filariasis. The elimination of malaria – a genuine triumph – was possible in part because the national malaria programme had access to a network of community-based primary health facilities. Facilities able to provide surveillance and diagnosis, and support targeted interventions where necessary. The same applies to Sri Lanka’s elimination of lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem. Alongside the near-total coverage mass drug administration achieved, primary health care services provided surveillance, disease management and disability prevention care, as they continue to.

Indeed, it is time to forget the old ways of thinking – the false dichotomies and choices. UHC and health systems strengthening – especially at the primary level – really are the way forward to a healthier, more equitable and secure world.

In highlighting Sri Lanka’s remarkable success, I nevertheless understand it faces a number of challenges, many of them germane to countries experiencing similar social and economic transitions. But I also understand Sri Lanka is taking bold action to address those challenges – whether by increasing health literacy to combat NCDs, reorganizing primary health care to provide specific services where they are needed most, or creating ‘age-friendly’ cities that provide older persons special infrastructure and services, including for health. This initiative and drive must be maintained. I have no doubt it will be given Sri Lanka’s ongoing commitment to UHC and its core principles.

As you face these challenges, let me assure you of WHO South-East Asia’s full technical and operational support. As you know, since 2014 UHC has been one of our Flagship Priority Areas of work. In consultation with Member States we have since developed and supported a range of game-changing initiatives.

Initiatives that increase human resources for health, not only to enhance the skills of health workers and the quality of services available, but also to aid staff retention in rural and hard-to-reach areas.

Programmes to promote diagnostic and treatment services for NCDs at the primary-level. These will prove critical to rolling back a challenge that has vast implications for the Region’s health and development.

And innovative mechanisms that leverage our collective strength such as the South-East Asia Regulatory Network – a Network that pools the Region’s regulatory resources and will help make safe, good quality medicines and medical products accessible to all.

Given the Region’s continued economic growth, accelerated progress is both possible and necessary.

To that end, I am pleased to note: The wind is at our back.

I sincerely thank WHO Director General Dr Tedros for his presence today, for placing UHC at the forefront of global health, and for providing global support for what WHO and its Member States have been striving to achieve.

I once again congratulate His Excellency the President for his commitment to UHC, as well as Dr Rajitha Senaratne for successfully spearheading the health department and making it a model of excellence, not only in the Region but globally as well.

Indeed, today, on World Health Day, we are reminded once again that we have a promise to honor. A promise that is bold yet simple, and will change the lives of millions of people across the Region and beyond. That promise is health coverage that is universal. Health coverage that is for all people everywhere and which leaves no one behind.

Thank you.