The World Health Organisation defines universal health coverage (UHC) as a healthcare system that ensures all people can use quality services that improve their health without putting them at risk of financial harm.
Countries cannot expect to achieve that without putting in place mechanisms that protect communities from disease and safeguard them from loss of income caused by epidemics such as HIV, TB and Ebola. Research and innovation for the development, deployment and affordability of critical medical treatments are indispensable in the quest for UHC.
UHC conversations are largely centred around service delivery, access to drugs, diagnostics and provision of social health insurance. But under-researched or ‘neglected diseases’ continue to pose a disease burden and the constant presence of global health threats from disease outbreaks that transcend borders (such as Ebola, swine flu and avian influenza) remain.
The April 8-15 WHO weekly bulletin on outbreaks and other emergencies had an alert on an outbreak of the deadly dengue fever in Mombasa County.
According to WHO, dengue virus is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics with no vaccine or specific treatment. Exposure to such a disease puts affected communities beyond the universality of UHC.
The undertaking to achieve UHC should take a leaf from the global and national response to HIV. While progress in early diagnosis of HIV infection, advanced care and treatment for those infected, as well as strategies to reduce infection rates, are being celebrated, the miles to go in conquering the epidemic are still recognised as a basis to continue and even step up investment in research.
Millions of dollars continue to be invested in discovery research which aims to increase our understanding of HIV and ultimately lead to development of a vaccine that will effectively, safely and affordably prevent new infections. Clinical trials of promising vaccine candidates are ongoing. They include two trials — one in South Africa and the other spanning five countries in southern African countries of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia — to evaluate the efficacy of the candidates in HIV prevention. Furthermore, numerous epidemiological studies and socio-behavioural research continues to inform polices and product design and development in the HIV response.
As this year’s Maisha HIV and Aids Conference, organised by the Kenya National Aids Control Council (NACC), seeks to learn lessons from the HIV response by public and private sector stakeholders, it would do well to take an in-depth look at the centrality of research and development in this response.
In the same way leaders in the HIV field have recognised that the current gains and available tools will not win the race against the epidemic, we would do well to realise that research to enhance disease surveillance, improve diagnostics and health systems, develop safer and more accessible prevention and treatment, and inform policy development will greatly contribute to accelerating the realisation of UHC in Kenya.
Ms Makila is the Associate Director - Advocacy Policy and Communications, International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). [email protected]