Gareth Thomas: Basic healthcare for the world's poor should be a right, not a luxury

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Last week I was in Sierra Leone, where I met Aisata Jabbie, an 18 year old mother in agony after complications during a home birth. She couldn't afford to give birth in the local hospital.

She is just one of millions of mothers and children suffering from preventable diseases and conditions that a basic level of healthcare would cure. Yet the vast majority of the world's poorest people have no access to any kind of medical facilities, and those who do are often seen by untrained medical staff dealing with chronic shortages of medicine

The developing world needs health systems that can deal with the preventable diseases that so often prove fatal, that can recruit and train high quality staff, and that can provide medicine which can make the difference between life and death.

Most importantly, they need to provide these vital services free of charge.

User fees in developing world hospitals have created a barrier between the world's poorest people and basic healthcare for decades, and it is appalling that tens of millions die every year simply because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

It is stories like Aisata's which drove the UK's efforts at September's UN General Assembly (UNGA) to secure a commitment from leaders to abolish user fees in six of the worst-hit countries. Ten million people - the vast majority of them women and children - will now no longer see good health as a luxury but as a right.

On top of this commitment from Nepal, Malawi, Ghana, Liberia, Burundi and Sierra Leone we also secured an additional £3.2 billion health package from developed countries to ensure that the establishment of universal, free healthcare is matched by a radical improvement in services.

This week the UK, through the Department for International Development, announced £12 million to help make Liberia's UN commitment a reality, ending user fees permanently in a country that has some of the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.

Poverty and poor health go hand in hand, and the deal struck at UNGA shows the determination of the developed and developing world to come together to find a solution to a terrible problem.

It is an important step on a long road, and one that marks genuine progress towards our goal to radically improve the health of all people in the developing world.

Gareth Thomas is Minister for International Development

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