This year’s International Universal Health Coverage Day (UHC Day), which will be celebrated on December 12, aims to mobilize diverse stakeholders to call for stronger, more equitable health systems to achieve universal health coverage, leaving no one behind.
The growing global movement for ‘Health for All’ comes at a time when the African region still faces a myriad of challenges related health. Many countries continue to struggle with high levels of child and maternal mortality and most health systems are unable to cope with the growing burden of chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.
These challenges call for renewed commitments and accelerated progress toward UHC, whose principle is that everyone receives needed health services without financial hardship.
While most African countries have integrated UHC into their national health strategies, progress in translating these commitments into equitable and quality health services, and increased financial protection, has been slow.
Financial barriers continue to hinder access in the region, with many individuals and households falling into poverty from seeking health care.
The first Global Monitoring Report “Tracking Universal Health Coverage”, indicates that in 37 countries globally – eight of which are in Africa – about 15 percent of poor households are further impoverished by out-of-pocket payments for health care.
In about half of African countries, 40 percent or more of the total health expenditure is constituted of household out-of-pocket payments, which is the most regressive way of funding health care.
The reliance on this payment mechanism creates financial barriers to access to health services and puts people at the risk of impoverishment.
Evidence shows that catastrophic health expenditure and impoverishment remain low in countries where out-of-pocket expenditure is less than 15–20 percent of the total health expenditure. In addition, few households are shown to be impoverished where out-of-pocket cost is less than 20 per cent of their total health expenditure.
Insufficient investment in the health sector and slow response to addressing the environmental and social elements impacting health will affect health outcomes in Africa, if drastic measures are not taken to improve the overall health of people.
The first step towards addressing Africa’s health challenges is for governments to understand and appreciate that health is a basic human right.
It is totally unacceptable that millions of people still face death, disability, ill health or impoverishment for reasons that could be addressed at limited cost.
Global health agencies and governments need to prioritise and to move away from vertical interventions that just tackle individual diseases and focus more on improving broader health systems.
UHC benefits economies through stimulating economic growth by ensuring a more productive workforce; facilitating educational gains by ensuring healthier children; and empowering women and reducing poverty associated with health costs.