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A new world, a new agenda for humanity

Bruce Aylward, WHO Executive Director a.i., Outbreaks and Health Emergencies

Commentary
22 May 2016

We live in a time of unprecedented advancements in global public health. Billions of children are protected by effective vaccines against once-widespread crippling and deadly diseases like polio and measles. Millions of people with HIV no longer face a certain death sentence but are able to live healthy, productive lives thanks to affordable antiretroviral medicines. New vaccines for diseases like Ebola can be developed and licenced in less than 12 months. Thanks to science and public health initiatives, many more people all around the world are living healthier, longer lives.

But not so for the 125 million people currently affected by humanitarian emergencies – by conflicts, disease outbreaks and natural disasters. These people risk dying of centuries-old diseases like cholera because they lack access to safe water and sanitation. Many face serious illness and death from manageable conditions like high blood pressure because of shortages of medicines, many cannot access basic health facilities because they have been damaged or destroyed in conflict.

I met two such people on an island in Greece last summer. Sitting in the waiting room of a one-woman clinic, these two friends told me the remarkable story of their trek across countries and seas all the way from Syria. Even more remarkable was their sheer determination to stick it out in their home country, in the midst of conflict, for five long years. What finally led them to leave was the fact that one of them could no longer access treatment for his diabetes. Faced with the prospect of a violent death due to the ongoing conflict or a slow and painful death from untreated diabetes, they chose instead to undertake a risky journey across the Aegean Sea.

This story demonstrates why, when we ask crisis-affected communities about their priorities, health is consistently at the top of the list. Put yourself in their place: without access to health care, even the usually joyful event of having a baby can be life-threatening instead of life-affirming. Without access to basic health supplies, even simple childhood nicks and cuts can lead to deadly infections. In fact, more than 50% of preventable deaths in children under the age of five and 60% of deaths among women in pregnancy and childbirth occur in settings of conflict, displacement and natural disasters.

Shared humanity

We have a shared humanity with these mothers and children and with everyone facing such emergencies. These are real people, like you and me, but who are living under some of the worst conditions imaginable. And they are doing all they can to survive.

Providing assistance to these people is the right thing to do. But it is also in our own self-interest. Addressing the influx of migrants currently facing Europe requires tackling the root causes that lead people to leave everything they’ve ever known behind and flee.

There are many things we can do, collectively, to help. The World Health Organization and our health partners aim to deliver life-saving health services to 80 million people affected by crises worldwide in 2016. We have mobile clinics, staffed by incredibly brave health workers, travelling out into conflict-affected districts in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. We’re vaccinating millions of children in Yemen who would otherwise miss out on routine immunizations. And we’re putting mobile technology into the hands of health workers across Ethiopia and South Sudan so that we can detect and respond to disease outbreaks in real time.

"Providing assistance to these people is the right thing to do. But it is also in our own self-interest."

Bruce Aylward, WHO Executive Director a.i., Outbreaks and Health Emergencies

Our biggest obstacles are access and finance. We are working with our partners and communities to implement courageous tactics to reach the hardest-to-reach communities. However, we cannot do this without funding. This year, less than 7% of the total funding needed to provide health to crisis-affected communities in 2016 has been pledged or received.

We must do better for humanity.

This the overriding goal of the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit set to be held in Istanbul, Turkey on 23-24 May. Building on the United Nations Secretary-General’s “Agenda for Humanity”, the Summit aims to gather the best ideas from around the world to transform the way we deliver humanitarian assistance in years to come. Ensuring that people’s health needs are met in emergencies will be central to the discussion.

There are three ways that you, as an individual, can help. One, educate yourself about these issues, starting at www.impossiblechoices.com and www.who.int/crises. Two, use your voice in support of the courageous organizations and individuals delivering services – including, and especially, health care – to people affected by humanitarian emergencies. Three, join the conversation and participate in the work of these organizations.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated recently, “The World Humanitarian Summit must be for the people living on the frontline of humanity. They count on us. We cannot let them down.”

Everyone, everywhere, has the right to health – including people affected by crises. Ensuring they can access health services is essential to our shared humanity.