Governments focus on boosting health security in response to emerging threats

22 May 2016 – Global efforts to achieve universal health coverage are put at risk by threats to national health systems including recent virus outbreaks such Ebola and Zika, as well as climate change, Commonwealth Health Ministers have warned.

Government representatives from 34 developed and developing countries, who met on 22 May 2016 at the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in Geneva, stressed the importance of bolstering their capacity to deal with public health threats and disasters through a focus on health security.

“The recent outbreak of Zika, which has been confirmed in the Americas with the potential to reach new regions, highlights the need to strengthen health systems to ensure resilience,” the Ministers said a joint statement.

The governments encouraged measures by the Commonwealth Secretariat, government health agencies, the private sector and civil society groups to reduce domestic violence, and also backed a commitment by the Commonwealth Secretariat to help countries share health innovations.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, who gave the opening address, cautioned that more needs to be done to help countries learn the lessons of past shocks to health systems. “We have to recognise that none of us saw Ebola coming,” the Secretary-General said. “That crisis taught us that we need to be better at detecting and rapidly scaling up targeted prevention measures.”

Responding to concerns about the financing of health services, the Secretary-General offered to convene a special meeting on ‘Making the Economic Case for Investing in Health Development’, together with Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

During the meeting, the Ministers discussed how health security can be a bridge to peace and stability, and how health outcomes are connected to policy-making across a wide range of areas, including disaster preparedness, climate change, families and communities, and extremist violence.

Dr Chan, who gave the keynote speech, stressed the importance of increasing the capacity of frontline workers to prevent and control infections and ensure patient safety, noting that a lack of trust was the “big barrier to successful control” during the recent Ebola epidemic, which ravaged Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

She said: “The inclusion of an early warning to detect and respond to unusual events [must be considered] as an integral part of the healthcare system and not something tagged on as an afterthought.” The Commonwealth can play a “very prominent role” in helping countries to boost their health systems and achieve universal health coverage, she added.

The Ministers commended the Commonwealth Secretariat for developing a health systems policy framework and a health protection policy toolkit, which will help governments to speed progress towards achieving universal coverage and prevent and contain disease outbreaks.

“We welcome the use of multi-risk assessment, multi-sectoral and multi-national policy responses to address climate change, control infectious diseases, as well as enable sustainable policy that benefits social, environmental and economic well-being,” the Ministers said.

The governments welcomed the launch of the Commonwealth Health Hub, and noted a new Global Charter for Public Health, developed by the World Federation of Public Health Associations.

Delegates also agreed that the theme of the next Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting, in May 2017, would be ‘Sustainable Financing of UHC as an Essential Component for Global Security Including the Reduction of All Forms of Violence’

The Commonwealth ministerial statement will be presented to the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body for the World Health Organization, which meets between 23 and 28 May 2016.

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