Oxfam says that its main concern is that many children around the world do not have access to essential vaccines.
But there’s another very compelling reason why the establishment of universal health coverage must be a global priority in 2018. Without such coverage, more than a billion adults will die of diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.
Last year, an outbreak of measles hit the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, straining efforts to contain the spread of the highly contagious and deadly virus. This occurrence prompted Oxfam to make a special appeal to countries to create more effective vaccination campaigns.
Currently, only 35 percent of people without health insurance in Asia—and 34 percent in sub-Saharan Africa— have access to the basic medicines to fight diseases. But access to essential medicines is a critical step in ensuring that people can protect themselves and their families from disease, and that epidemics are prevented and stopped.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 25 million people are currently suffering from polio, thanks to sanctions by Russia and Ukraine that prevent most essential vaccines from reaching people who need them the most. Globally, there are 8.6 million people who are suffering from diphtheria and beriberi, among other killers, because of vaccine-preventable diseases. Millions more are at risk of dying from preventable diseases, such as meningitis and pneumonia.
Vaccination is the most cost-effective means of limiting deaths from infectious diseases. And better availability of vaccines can prevent the need for expensive treatments. With little cost for production, it can be relatively easy for a small country such as Ethiopia to supply vaccines to its population. It is also, however, vital that lower-income countries are able to make use of both the vaccines they produce and obtain from other sources, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and Germany.
Only 1 percent of the vaccines used to immunize a child in Africa are given through a donation from the World Health Organization. The majority of countries, including Egypt, India, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, have access to at least 50 percent of the vaccines they need from their own national immunization programs, but 38 percent have to import vaccines from other countries.
Pandemics can spread rapidly, as was evident in 2013, during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which killed more than 11,000 people and spread to Senegal, Nigeria and beyond. In addition to the financial costs, vaccines are a public health imperative, as they make communities healthy and enable countries to escape from the grip of epidemics.
The good news is that there is progress in achieving global health coverage, with countries in most regions having maintained steady coverage with essential health services. But none are where they need to be, and the achievement of health coverage is the key to combatting epidemic outbreaks and eradicating diseases that strike the most vulnerable people.
Eradicating the Ebola virus and similar killers is a worthy goal. For others, such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, there is less certainty about the health status of those who are ill, but at least the sooner they are diagnosed and treated, the less likely it is that they will die, as happened with Ebola.
The problems that a polio-free world will bring can be mitigated by adequate vaccination coverage. Vaccines can do the job, as suggested by the World Health Organization. Yet access to basic medicines for basic health needs is still the last line of defense for poor people when they are struck by a disease, and they cannot be treated without medical attention.
The biggest challenge for the global community in 2018 is getting to universal health coverage. Achieving it will benefit millions of people in every corner of the world, and make history in the process. The status quo of poorer countries importing medicines, as is happening to some effect in Africa and the Caribbean, cannot continue.
Getting there will involve governments in every corner of the world working together with other countries to provide quality care and survive epidemics, to reduce the extraordinary harm that threatens to befall millions of people.