Preventable diseases: the new epidemics
Preventable, treatable diseases are deadlier than ever due to inequalities in health systems. The time is now for the UK to champion health for all.
Across the world, deep-set inequalities are fanning the flames of the world’s gravest humanitarian and development crises to date. And there is no greater inequality than denying an individual the right to protection, the right to an education and the right to survival. Yet millions of children are being denied these very basic rights.
With girls’ education taking centre-stage at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, we must also acknowledge that there is another inequality, which urgently requires UK leadership, especially if we are to realise the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This inequality leaves millions of children behind, at risk and defenceless to seemingly preventable diseases.
This inequality is the denial of the right to survival. The right to quality and equitable healthcare – the underpinning ethos of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). A right that we have enjoyed in the UK for almost 70 years now through our National Health Service (NHS), however across the globe the reality is starkly different.
Presently, half the world’s population is without access to essential health services, 100 million are pushed into extreme poverty by healthcare expenses and preventable diseases have rapidly ascended the infectious killer list. Pneumonia, a preventable and treatable disease, is now the biggest infectious killer of children – claiming nearly a million lives each year, or two children every minute. Children die from pneumonia because they are denied the benefits of prevention, accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Pneumonia today is overwhelmingly a disease of poverty, as it has been throughout history. It is closely associated with background risks such as malnutrition and exposure to indoor air pollution. The risk of contracting pneumonia is heavily skewed towards the poorest children, while prospects for receiving accurate diagnosis, effective treatment and appropriate care are also skewed against the poor.
Save the Children has calculated that children under the age of five living in Commonwealth countries are two and a half times more likely to die from pneumonia than children living in non-Commonwealth countries. The results are even more shocking when comparing the difference between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth low and middle-income counties: children under the age of five in Commonwealth low and middle-income countries are still twice as likely to die from pneumonia. Rather than ending preventable child deaths by 2030, our current trajectory will see around three million children die from preventable illness before their fifth birthdays.
However, the quickest route to transforming this bleak picture is by supporting UHC. Pneumonia is not a disease that kills in isolation, but one that kills children in concert with other threats they face, from malaria to malnutrition. That is why UHC is critical for reducing pneumonia deaths in children and critical to reach the SDG target on child survival. Ensuring all children, everywhere, have access to quality healthcare is essential.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is spearheading a global push for UHC, making it the core theme for this World Health Day and for the upcoming World Health Assembly taking place the following month. WHO is calling on state leaders to commit to three concrete actions that will advance UHC. The UK should answer this call because healthcare is a human right, not a privilege.
As the pioneers of Universal Health Coverage (UHC), the UK can help make equitable healthcare for all a reality. The NHS is the oldest and most successful model of UHC. By championing UHC, the UK is investing in future relationships and paving the way for a more prosperous world – where the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals is realised, and where every child can survive, thrive and reach their full potential.
Preet Gill is Labour Co-operative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston.