The Region of the Americas must scale-up and accelerate actions to ensure sustainable and equitable access to health care, the Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa F. Etienne, urged during the opening session of the organization’s 57th Directing Council in Washington, D.C.
“There can be no doubt that we, as a region, are making significant and tangible progress on the road towards achieving universal health coverage and universal access to health. However, we must also truthfully acknowledge that our collective actions need to be more transformational, as we are not progressing either at the speed nor scale required,” said Etienne.
Addressing more than a hundred delegates and civil society representatives attending the meeting, the PAHO Director cited recent health successes achieved by countries of the Americas, outlined in the 2019 Global Monitoring Report: “Primary Health Care on the Road to Universal Health Coverage,” which was launched at the United Nations General Assembly last week.
These include the highest rating of any region on a global measure of health services coverage (79 out of 100 UHC Service Coverage Index) and a significant increase in average regional public expenditure in health, from 3.8 to 4.2% of GDP over the last five years.
Despite such progress, however, Etienne pointed to an urgent need for joint action on larger health challenges, including global warming and climate change, the prevention of rapid and uncontrolled infectious disease spread, antimicrobial resistance, mass migration and the production of safe food and water, and called on ministers and delegates to “work together cooperatively for mutual global good across many areas.”
Other priority areas discussed during the first day of the 57th PAHO Directing Council include:
Advancing the Sustainable Health Agenda for the Americas
The Annual Report of the Director 2019 describes PAHO’s support for country efforts to advance toward universal health by pursuing the 11 goals laid out in the Sustainable Health Agenda for the Americas 2018-2030 (SHAA2030).
PAHO’s technical cooperation during the last year focused on ensuring equitable access to health services; stewardship and governance for health; human resources for health; outbreaks, emergencies and disasters, among others. The organization’s work placed special priority on people and groups in conditions of vulnerability and countries experiencing political, migration and other crises with serious impacts on public health.
“While we recognize that there are differences in countries’ developmental stage, size, culture, resources, and systems, we strongly believe that all countries can address the core principles and components of universal health, regardless of those differences,” Etienne said.
Urgent need for action on climate change
Just one month after category-5 storm Hurricane Dorian made landfall in northwest Bahamas, severely affecting the health sectors in Abaco and Grand Bahama, Bahamian Minister of Health Duane Sands urged fellow leaders throughout the Americas to take urgent action on climate change.
“What I saw in the Bahamas is a tragic reminder of the urgent need to both mitigate and adapt to our changing climate,” echoed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Although small island states are the least responsible for climate change, they are among the most at risk.”
Last May, the countries and territories of the Caribbean launched a Caribbean Action Plan on Health and Climate Change, which provides a roadmap to ensure that health is front and center of national climate change planning in the region. A workshop will be held in Kingston, Jamaica, Oct. 7-8, to support countries in strengthening national and technical capacities, improving project concepts, building partnerships and taking stock of climate action needs in the Caribbean.
Health trends in the Americas
The 2019 edition of PAHO’s Core Indicators, Health Trends in the Americas, published Monday, shows that the number of people in the Americas aged 65 or over has nearly doubled since 1995, from 62 million to 116 million in 2019, posing a challenge to achieving universal health coverage and universal access in the Region. Noncommunicable diseases account for 81% of deaths in the Region.
Other important trends include an increase in equity gaps in out-of-pocket health spending in the Americas: the richest quarter of the population spends slightly over 10% of their income on health, half the percent they spent in 1995, while the poorest quarter continues to spend 40% of their income on health care as they did 25 years ago.
Overweight and obesity rates have increased for both men and women, from under 50% in 1995 to over 60% by 2016.
57th PAHO Directing Council
Health authorities from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean are meeting in Washington D.C. this week to seek agreement on strategies and plans for tackling common health challenges. These include a plan to reduce heart disease by eliminating industrially produced trans-fatty acids, a strategy to make access to organ, tissue and cell transplants more equitable, and a place to improve the quality of care in health services, among other issues.
The Pan American Health Organization works with the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of its population. Founded in 1902, it is the world’s oldest international public health agency. It serves as the Regional Office of WHO for the Americas and is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American system.