Healthcare – or rather adequate access to it – is one of the biggest challenges facing society today, and if further evidence was needed, the recent pandemic has dispelled any remaining doubts about how deep that rift still is.

As we celebrate the 71st United Nations World Health Day, we are reminded of the importance that health plays in our everyday lives. There have unfortunately been many occasions in the past where outbreaks of diseases globally including Ebola, SARS, MERS, Avian Flu and not forgetting malaria – the world’s biggest killer – have brought the case for “inclusive healthcare for all” into sharp relief. But few have had the dislocating and widespread impact in so many countries as we have seen from Covid-19.

The theme of this year’s UN World Health Day could therefore not be more appropriate – “Building a fairer, healthier world for everyone”. As we have seen tragically exposed by the effects of this latest pandemic of modern times, access to the same levels of primary and secondary healthcare treatment and indeed prevention of infection in the first place, simply do not exist consistently around the world.

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Part of the problem is geographical. Some of the most unequal countries in the world are also among the largest, including India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Sudan. They have sizable land areas and highly dispersed populations with wide distances between urban centers. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, over 287 million people live more than two hours from the nearest primary medical care.

But it’s not just about access – it’s also about the availability. At least half of the world’s population does not enjoy even the most basic essential health services, and more than 800 million people spend at least 10 percent of their household budgets paying for medical services.

Healthcare systems in many low-income countries are often characterized by the poor integration of health-related strategies at a national level, which enable effective treatments to efficiently and quickly reach communities at the local level. In so many ways, the fight to develop healthcare equality globally aligns with the fight against global poverty. The WHO states that better health makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy populations live longer, are more productive, and save more.

Building impactful partnerships to deliver transformative solutions that address this disparity can play a meaningful part in the solution to this problem. One example is our recent collaboration with US-based Evelo Biosciences. They have been pursuing groundbreaking science using the microbiome in the small intestine, to help produce a therapeutic response throughout the body. This represents a completely new profile of medicine that is effective, affordable, can be stored at room temperature, and orally delivered. Very few innovative biotech medicines have such a profile.

The WHO states that better health makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy populations live longer, are more productive, and save more

Going back to the theme for this year’s World Health Day, a fairer, healthier world is not just about combatting diseases when they arrive, as sadly they always will. It is also about how to manage non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart and lung diseases, which account for 70 percent of deaths globally. The fact that these afflictions are, if anything, increasing is at least partly caused by factors such as poor diets, insufficient exercise, smoking, alcohol usage, and air pollution. The ever-increasing urbanization of our communities also provides a fertile breeding ground for pathogens.

It is fair to say that the provision of healthcare is today at an exciting but critical juncture. The boundaries of what is possible are expanding ever outwards, and there is no reason why high-quality healthcare should not be universally accessible. The collaboration that we have seen in the rapid development of vaccines to defeat Covid-19 is remarkable, not only in the speed that it has been delivered, but also in the international and public/private sector cooperation that has taken place to allow it to happen, and the sheer brilliance of those behind creating an effective defense against the virus.

Momentum and continued innovation and high-level political commitment will be key, along with new channels of finance from investors with a long-term commitment and a holistic vision. Investment in innovative, early-stage and breakthrough ventures and technology to positively shape the future medical and healthcare industries will be vital. Real success will not come from financial returns, but in the humanitarian outcomes that are created.

Achieving this goal will not be easy, but millions of lives depend on the success of those working day in day out to find breakthroughs, and the cooperation that needs to exist to deliver such discoveries to the world.

Dr. Akram Bouchenaki, Chief Executive Officer of Abdul Latif Jameel Health

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