This article was originally published on Politics Home.
Strong health systems are critical to international efforts to tackle emerging health emergencies, such as Ebola and Zika.
Global health emergencies have barely been out of the headlines over the last few years. The Ebola crisis killed nearly 8,000 people and crippled weak health systems in West Africa, the zika virus emerged as a dangerous global threat, and most recently a new outbreak of yellow fever has been reported in urban areas of Angola. Against this backdrop, people in both the developed and developing world face a seemingly endless list of health challenges.
At the World Health Organization (WHO) World Health Assembly in Geneva last month reforming the WHO and improving health emergency early detection and response mechanisms were at the top of the agenda. In the same week in Ise-Shima, Japan, the G7 discussed similar concerns, and published the G7 Ise-Shima Vision for Global Health. This prioritised improving global health security through reinforcing global systems for responding to public health emergencies and tackling the threat of growing antimicrobial resistance.
Given that they play a critical role in dealing with disease outbreaks and reacting to health crises, strong health systems also featured in the G7’s Vision for Global Health. Resilient health systems, which extend vital health services to the entire population and are able to respond quickly and effectively to health emergencies, are an essential component of crisis preparedness. Ebola spread as far as it did in part due to weakness of the health systems in West Africa, and their inability to respond adequately to the scale of the outbreak. Conversely, the relative strength of the detection and response mechanisms of the health system in Nigeria, which the UK has been a long-term partner of, allowed the country to intervene quickly and halt Ebola’s spread.
The benefits of a strong health system go beyond health security. Their weaknesses and a lack of access to basic health services cause unnecessary suffering, disability, poverty and death, and severely limit people’s educational and economic prospects. Of the 5.9 million child deaths in 2015, half were caused by illnesses that could have been prevented or treated at the basic community level, such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and acute malnutrition. Strong health systems are critical to tackling high burdens of diseases such as malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Poor health is one of the primary causes of school and work absenteeism in developing countries, and out of pocket health expenditures can push families into poverty and stop them from escaping it. On the national scale, stronger health systems that improve public health act as a catalyst for economic development, and a high malaria burden alone has been estimated to reduce the growth in GDP by up to 1.3 percent.
The UK’s role in global health
The UK continues to be an important player in global health with a strong record of investment, world-leading research institutions and pharmaceutical companies, and one of the most developed NGO sectors. It also has extensive knowledge and expertise gained from managing the National Health Service. The UK’s continuing commitment has contributed significantly to the reductions in child, neonatal and maternal deaths achieved under the Millennium Development Goals, and the global improvements in public health.
The UK’s Health System Strengthening Framework is due to be published this summer, and we hope this will outline a comprehensive plan for how the UK plans to contribute to strengthening health systems in the Sustainable Development Goals era. Through it, the world will be better placed to face new disease outbreaks and health emergencies, thereby ensuring health security in the UK and around the world.
Malaria Consortium’s approach to health systems strengthening
Malaria Consortium understands the importance of strong health systems and works to strengthen them through our projects. We approach this through disease-specific interventions that aim to reduce the crippling impact of disease burdens on health systems. We also use our interventions to create entry points to strengthen the broader system including training health workers and managers, strengthening laboratory and health centre services and supporting Ministries of Health to update health policies and practice. We implement bespoke solutions to context-specific problems, and work with governments to integrate sustainable interventions into the wider health system.
For more information about Malaria Consortium’s approach to health systems strengthening, including key messages for national governments and development partners, see our new advocacy brief, ‘Health system strengthening: a context specific approach’.
 Roll Back Malaria Partnership, ‘Action and Investment to Defeat Malaria 2016-2030’ (2015)