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Opinion

Opinion: UN Humanitarian Summit seeks a new agenda

Crises currently affect 125 million people globally. With the UN's first World Humanitarian Summit scheduled to begin on Monday, WHO's Bruce Aylward pleads for greater access to health care for people affected by crises.

We live in a time of unprecedented advancements in global public health. Billions of children are protected by effective vaccines against such once-widespread crippling and deadly diseases as polio and measles. Millions of people with HIV no longer face certain death, but are able to live healthy, productive lives thanks to affordable antiretroviral medicines.

New vaccines for diseases

such as

Ebola

can be developed and used in less than 12 months. Thanks to science and public health initiatives, more people around the world are living healthier, longer lives.

But that's not the case for the 125 million people currently affected by humanitarian emergencies - by conflicts, disease outbreaks and natural disasters. Lacking access to safe water and sanitation, these people risk dying of diseases that have effectively been eradicated elsewhere. Many face serious illness and death from such manageable conditions as high blood pressure because of shortages of medicines. In many places, basic health facilities have been damaged or destroyed in conflicts.

I met two such people on an island in Greece last summer. Sitting in the waiting room of a one-woman clinic, these two friends told me the remarkable story of their trek across countries and seas all the way from

Syria.

Even more remarkable was their sheer determination to stick it out in their home country, in the midst of conflict, for five long years. What finally led them to leave was the fact that one of them could no longer access treatment for his diabetes. Faced with the prospect of a violent death in the ongoing conflict or his slow and painful death from untreated diabetes, they chose instead to undertake a risky journey across the Aegean Sea.

This story demonstrates why health is consistently at the top of the list when we ask crisis-affected communities about their priorities. Without access to health care, even the usually joyful event of having a baby can be life-threatening instead of life-affirming. Without access to basic health supplies, even simple childhood nicks and cuts can lead to deadly infections. In fact, more than 50 percent of preventable deaths in children under the age of 5 and 60 percent of deaths among women in pregnancy and childbirth occur in settings of conflict, displacement and natural disasters.

We have a shared humanity with these mothers and children and with everyone facing such emergencies. These are real people who are living under some of the worst conditions imaginable. And they are doing all they can to survive.

A human need

Providing assistance is the right thing to do. It is also in our own self-interest. Addressing the current

mass arrival of displaced people

to Europe requires tackling the root causes that lead people to leave behind everything that they have ever known.

There are many things we can collectively do to help. In 2016, the World Health Organization and our partners aim to deliver lifesaving services to 80 million people affected by crises worldwide. We have mobile clinics staffed by incredibly brave health workers who travel into conflict-affected districts in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. We are vaccinating millions of children in Yemen who would otherwise miss out on routine immunizations. And we're putting mobile technology into the hands of health workers across Ethiopia and South Sudan so that we can detect and respond to disease outbreaks in real time.

Our biggest obstacles are access and finance. We are working with our partners and communities to implement courageous tactics to reach the hardest-to-reach communities. However, we cannot do this without funding. This year, less than 7 percent of the total funding needed to provide health to crisis-affected communities in 2016 has been pledged or received.

We must do better for humanity.

This is the overriding goal of

the first World Humanitarian Summit,

set to be held in Istanbul on May 23 and 24. Building on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's "Agenda for Humanity," the summit aims to gather the best ideas from around the world to transform the ways in which we deliver humanitarian assistance in the years to come. Ensuring that people's health needs are met in emergencies will be central to the discussion.

There are three ways that you, as an individual, can help. One is to educate yourself about these issues, starting at www.impossiblechoices.com and www.who.int/crises. Two, you can use your voice to support the courageous organizations and individuals delivering services - including, and especially, health care - to people affected by humanitarian emergencies. Three, you can join the conversation and participate in the work of these organizations.

As Ban said recently: "The World Humanitarian Summit must be for the people living on the front line of humanity. They count on us. We cannot let them down."

Everyone, everywhere, has the right to health. Ensuring access to health services is essential to our shared humanity.

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