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Major Health Summit Offers ‘Springboard for Action’

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Far-reaching measures that will drive up healthcare standards and improve the lives of millions of citizens have been agreed by Commonwealth ministers.

At the 30th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in Geneva, government representatives endorsed a series of bold proposals, including 100% smoke-free public spaces; a 20% sugar tax on drinks; immunisations for all girls aged 9–13 against cervical cancer by 2025; one-stop crisis centres for victims of gender-based violence, and the creation of a Commonwealth Evidence Base for Cancer Control; and an acceleration of universal health coverage (UHC).

UHC will help to protect Commonwealth citizens from challenges such as non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – the central focus of this year’s health summit – which currently affect more than 400 million people across the 53 member countries.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland had earlier told ministers that consensus on solutions to challenges such as NCDs would be a ‘springboard for action’.

Addressing a packed room of ministers, delegates and observers, Secretary-General Scotland said, ‘This year’s meeting enables us to focus on fully playing our part as the Commonwealth in mobilising to tackle the growing crisis of NCDs, which is causing devastation in all our member countries, and affecting with particular severity Small Island Developing States and low and middle-income countries.’

There were ‘captivating possibilities’ for Commonwealth countries to agree on issues such as a sugar tax and a smoke-free Commonwealth.

The Secretary-General went on to commend the work of the 53 member countries in their efforts to boost health standards. She said: ‘It is by identifying gaps in provision or mobilisation which the Commonwealth is able to fill, by virtue of our distinctive range of membership, trust and engagement, that we will add to our admirable record of solid pioneering progress and solid achievement.’

The Secretary-General added that going forward there were ‘captivating possibilities’ for Commonwealth countries to agree on issues such as a sugar tax and a smoke-free Commonwealth.

Urging ministers to be bold, she concluded: ‘If there is general assent and consensus, we will have a springboard for action on which we can build.’

NCDs account for around 10 million deaths across the Commonwealth every year, with 7 million of these due to the leading causes such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory disease and diabetes.

The Secretary-General went on to discuss gender-based violence, which is the greatest cause of morbidity and mortality in women, with 30% of the female population worldwide having experienced it. Despite that, fewer than 40% seek help or support.

Earlier, humanitarian Graca Machel from The Elders had paid tribute to the work of Commonwealth countries, in addition to highlighting the many challenges that lay ahead. She said: ‘The Commonwealth represents a huge range of experiences and lessons in moving towards UHC. At all income levels there are shining examples of Commonwealth countries outperforming their peers in increasing coverage of essential health services and protecting their people from the costs of these services.’

Ms Machel went on to praise the work of Commonwealth countries in her home continent of Africa, such as Rwanda and Malawi, who have had considerable success in expanding their healthcare systems and cutting the levels of child mortality.

However, Ms Machel warned that more needed to be done, and was critical of those countries which committed low levels of their Gross National Income to funding to healthcare.

Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom also addressed the annual meeting, commending countries for their efforts to address non-communicable diseases. However, he urged countries to step up their efforts to deal with one of the biggest NCD’s, mental health. Pointing out that many countries currently fall short in this area he said that, going forward, ‘mental health is key’.

It was agreed that the 2019 theme would be ‘Universal Health Coverage: Reaching the unreached, ensuring that no-one is left behind’.

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