It Happened 40 Years Ago and Is Saving Lives Today

This week, I’m thinking about two events that took place 40 years and thousands of miles apart and are now intersecting in a powerful way.

The first event was a major anniversary in the global health community. Forty years ago, in the city of Alma Ata in the Kazakh republic of the former Soviet Union (now Almaty, Kazakhstan), the world awakened to primary health care as the cornerstone for improving health for all people.

Childhood vaccinations are a key element of primary health care. Photo by Nana Kofi Acquah.

At a major international conference, representatives from governments, the health industry, academia and civil society declared for the first time that primary health care — basic, community-centered care that recognizes that health is more than simply the absence of disease — should be the central focus of our health systems. The declaration literally changed the approach to health care in many parts of the world.

Also last week, and seemingly unrelated, my organization became part of a major humanitarian response to Hurricane Florence, which made landfall on the southeast U.S. coast, killing more than 30 people and devastating communities in the Carolinas. The full impact of the disaster is just now becoming clear.

Americares teams bring essential medicine to clinics serving survivors of Hurricane Florence.Photo by Alex Wroblewski.

At Americares our initial response to the impact of this powerful, drenching storm includes direct support to a network of nonprofit health clinics that provide primary health care services to the most vulnerable patients in the region. The care these clinics provide every day is life-saving for many of their patients.

Those clinics — and many more like them around the world — owe their existence in part to what happened in Alma Ata in September 1978.

Health for all. Health as a human right. Equity in access to health services. Inclusion of social and economic development as a means to improved health. Primary care at the community level. These were all themes of the declaration signed at the close of the Alma Ata conference.

Americares Free Clinics provide primary care to low-income uninsured patients in Connecticut. Photo by Americares.

I have attended many international conferences and walked away from too many of them not sure that anything would change despite the time, effort and energy committed to the issue at hand. In fact, Alma Ata led to the overly optimistic goal “Health for All by 2000” that, of course, was not achieved. But much did change, including the approach to health care in many countries and the prioritization of practical, local primary care efforts. As result, millions of lives have been saved — 86 percent of children worldwide now received routine vaccinations, for example, reducing their risk of dying from infectious disease.

In October, a 40th anniversary follow-up Global Conference on Primary Health Care will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, to renew the commitment to primary health care and its role in achieving universal health coverage around the world.

Meanwhile, this week and with Americares help, charitable community clinics in hurricane-affected areas will provide life-saving, life-restoring and life-building help to their patients and people in their communities. They are living out the promise made 40 years ago at the Alma Ata conference.