Nobody should go bankrupt when they fall sick. That is the simple, but urgent, call of Universal Health Coverage Day, which was marked across the world earlier this month. Yet despite the best efforts of governments and development agencies in recent years, many people are still left in financial ruin when a family member becomes ill.
In low and middle-income countries, almost 6% of the population is tipped or pushed further into extreme poverty because of out-of-pocket health expenses, while 400 million people globally don't even have access to basic health services. If we don't close these gaps in health coverage, the world's poor - especially women, children and adolescents - will be left behind.
The goal of universal health coverage is to ensure that all people obtain the health services they need without suffering financial hardship. This requires strong, efficient, well-run health systems. But more importantly, it requires ensuring equity in access, prioritising women, children and adolescents in national programmes.
A number of countries have already successfully embraced reforms to make quality care universally available. More than 100 low- and mid-income countries--that make up three-quarters of the world's population--have enacted such reforms, including nations as diverse as Brazil, Ghana, Mexico, Rwanda, Turkey and Thailand.
The United Nations also recognises the importance of universal health coverage. A key component of the UN Secretary-General's Every Woman Every Child movement, and its updated Global Strategy, involves making healthcare systems more accessible, stronger and resilient.
Access to quality health services and to safe, effective and affordable medicines and vaccines are key in achieving progress. By working together in theses areas, the Every Woman Every Child community has already helped save millions of lives. But we must do even more to maintain the progress achieved and address emerging needs.
Equitable financing is especially important. In countries with high income inequality, wealthier urbanites tend to have priviledged access to quality health care, sometimes at the expense of poorer citizens. This is particularly true with the roll-out of health insurance schemes that prioritize the employed, rather than those with the greatest need. By spreading health costs across the whole population everyone would pay less, access would be increased and those in need of treatment for serious illnesses would be spared financial catastrophe.
The global community also has to think--and act--to ensure quality health care in crises and emergencies. According to a recent UN report, natural disasters affect 200 million people a year and the likelihood of being displaced by a disaster is 60 per cent higher than it was four decades ago. Women, children and adolescents bear extraordinary burdens in such circumstances. Their needs are rarely met as they lose access to health and other support systems.
We must support countries in their path towards sustainable development, ensuring that the most vulnerable are not forgotten. Fifteen years from now, we hope that every woman, child and adolescent has access to quality and affordable health care. For that to happen, we must redouble our efforts to ensure more equitable health coverage systems that are genuinely universal.