Being healthy — and having access to affordable health care when you're sick — is a foundation that many of us rely on as a means to living our lives, whether it's working, socializing, or generally being a contributing member of society. Good health and well-being underpins everything we do.
But millions of people across the world are being held back by long-term conditions and preventable diseases because they do not have this basic need fulfilled. In fact, the United Nations estimates that at least half the world’s population of 7.3 billion people (as of 2019, when its report was published) do not have access to essential health services.
For people already living in poverty, or who are on the poverty line, ill health can mean not being able to work, plan for the future, or take care of children. It can mean falling into debt in order to pay for health care or due to loss of income. Altogether, these problems contribute to a cycle of poverty affecting generations of families around the world.
The UN's Global Goal 3 calls for action to promote good health and well-being to help end extreme poverty by 2030. Incredible progress has been made — for example, between 2000 and 2015, the number of global childhood deaths was cut by half — proving that concerted global action can make a difference. But there is still so much more to do.
The focus of the goal is on specific issues, including: reducing maternal mortality; ending preventable deaths for child under 5; fighting communicable disease; and improving health systems worldwide, among other aims that interlink with these – such as improving nutrition and tackling substance abuse.
Here’s everything you need to know about the state of health and health care in the world today and why improving health is so inextricably linked to ending extreme poverty.
How is poor health linked to poverty and inequality?
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual statistics report found that in 2010, almost 100 million people were pushed into extreme poverty because they had to pay for health services out of pocket — showing the most direct way that lack of accessible health care causes and entrenches poverty.
But there are lots of other ways that lack of health care – including lack of access to important vaccines – creates massive inequalities in society, and variations in health outcomes depending on where you live.
There is a 36-year life expectancy gap between different countries, for example, according to the WHO’s research. A person born in Malawi can expect to live to 47, while a person born in Japan can expect to live until 83.
According to the WHO, every single day, 21,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday, of causes like pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, and other diseases. Many of these illnesses are easily treatable with available medicine, so these deaths should be avoidable.
Although progress has been made in this area in the past 20 years, it is still the case that children from the poorest 20% of households are nearly twice as likely to die before the age of 5 than children from the richest 20%.
One way children survive their early years is by being vaccinated against common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and meningitis. But despite making progress through huge public health immunization programs, there are still millions of children who are under-immunized, according to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Approximately 19.4 million children are currently missing out on essential childhood vaccines, with 76% of these children living in the 69 developing countries that Gavi supports.
Another issue that causes health inequality that is often overlooked is in the form of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). These diseases affect over 1 billion of the world's poorest people and are often treatable, but are neglected when it comes to receiving targeted funding.
How does health affect gender equality?
Health inequality affects progress on gender equality, too. Every year 287,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth, and a huge 56% of those deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Maternity Worldwide. The prospects for a child whose mother has died are lowered too, as they are less likely to receive proper education, nutrition, and health care, the charity explains.
Gender inequality in turn impacts health outcomes. For example, child marriage impacts more girls under 18 than boys, and puts girls at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy complications.
That’s why part of Global Goal 3 is to aim for universal access to sexual and reproductive care, family planning, and education.
What progress has been made and what solutions are there?
In recent years, there have been improvements on 26 out of the 43 health-related target areas across the UN's Global Goals, according to the WHO’s annual health statistics report.
But progress has stalled globally, and is even going backwards in five of the areas targeted for improvement, the WHO report says. These include an increase in road traffic accident deaths; childhood obesity; alcohol consumption; incidences of malaria; and the need for aid money to be spent on water distribution in developing countries.
In addition to the WHO, which is the UN's specialized agency for global health, there are other agencies, such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), working on health care issues too. Gavi has also made huge strides in vaccinating millions of people and strengthening health care systems globally.
In 2018 alone, Gavi immunized 66 million children, and is well on target to have reached 300 million children as of this year.
One of the biggest achievements of vaccination programs can be seen in the near-eradication of polio worldwide. That has happened because of the Global Polio Eradication Iniative (GPEI). The GPEI has vaccinated 400 million children a year, since it was formed in 1988 — and the number of cases has dropped in that time from 350,000 cases a year down to just a handful of cases now.
There is still a long way to go before Global Goal 3 for good health and well-being for all has been achieved, but the progress made on these iniatives shows that organizations working together globally can lead to remarkable impact.
You can join the movement to help achieve health and well-being for all by taking action here with Global Citizen. Right now, you can take urgent action here to support the global efforts to combat COVID-19, through our "Together At Home" campaign. There, you can take actions like calling on the EU and other G20 states to step up their funding; find out more about coronavirus and how to stay helping; and help bust the myths about coronavirus that are threatening people's health.
You can see all of Global Citizen's COVID-19 coverage here.