New WHO Director-General Embraces Universal Coverage, Cancer Focus Urged

Fran Quigley, in Geneva

In his first press conference as director-general-elect of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus today made his core mission clear. “As I traveled in recent months, the message I heard around the world was that health is a rights issue,” he said. “What the world promised in 1948 when the WHO was instituted still is true today. That means that all roads should lead to universal coverage.”

Those will be challenging roads to travel, Dr. Tedros—he is known by his first name—acknowledged in his acceptance speech last night to the World Health Assembly. “Only about half of the world’s population have access to healthcare without impoverishment,” he said to the delegates who elected him to be the first African to lead the WHO. “That needs to improve dramatically.”

As for his plans to achieve that improvement, Dr. Tedros has spoken only in generalities so far. But some civil society advocates were immediately ready to provide a specific plan for his tenure.

One of the most deadly gaps in global healthcare is in access to cancer treatment, the world’s second leading cause of death. So representatives from Knowledge Ecology International, Union for Affordable Cancer Treatment, and Medicines Law and Policy came together the morning after his election to call on Dr. Tedros to prioritize the availability of cancer care to all patients in need.

Noting that cancer medicines can cost in excess of $100,000 per year, Manon Ress of UACT, herself a Stage IV cancer patient, said the treatment gap is growing in both poor and wealthier countries. “Governments are telling us that it is too expensive to buy the medicines, and their response is rationing,” she said. “Patients cannot accept that.”

Ress, along with KEI’s James Love and Medicines Law and Policy’s Ellen t’Hoen, expressed optimism that Dr. Tedros would follow the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines, whose report he praised in his press conference. In a January, 2017 letter to Lancet, Dr. Tedros referenced two core components of the High-Level Panel suggestions: full use of compulsory licenses to manufacture generic versions of high-cost medicines, and the philosophy of delinking medicine prices from the cost of research.

A resolution on cancer medicines prices expected to be passed by WHA in the coming days is not as strong as the advocates had hoped for, but they believe it still provides Dr. Tedros with a platform for bold action. “This gives Dr. Tedros a decent mandate for going forward with a report on delinkage, if he is really willing to try something different to address the cancer treatment crisis,” Love said.


Fran Quigley is a clinical professor and director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. He is the Health and Human Rights Journal correspondent at the World Health Assembly, May 2017.