Adolescents: the missing population in universal health coverage
Adolescents’ needs must be included if we’re to achieve health and wellbeing for all
Where does attention need to focus when it comes to achieving health and wellbeing for all?
In global health, much work has focussed in recent decades on vulnerable groups such as mothers and under-fives. While there is always more to do, great progress has been made, resulting in a halving of under-5 mortality during the Millennium Development Goal period (2000-2015).
But last week, we joined other experts and young people gathered at an event in Geneva to discuss the urgent need for the same level of political and practical attention to be focussed on another greatly under-served group: adolescents.
Why? Because effective health care and information, and support to lead healthy lifestyles, for those on the cusp of adulthood is one of the best single ways to guarantee lifelong improvements in health. And because despite this, services and support for adolescent health are too often badly designed, under funded or non-existent.
As a newly published paper from Plan International, in collaboration with leading organisations in this field – including the WHO, UNICEF, PMNCH, IAAH and others – indicates (Adolescent Health: The Missing Population in Universal Health Coverage), adolescence is the time when we form significant behaviours and habits that will hugely impact our future health. Becoming a smoker, giving up exercise, beginning to drink – all these are determinants of lifelong health.
Young people are also exposed to new risks and new choices: violence, mental health challenges and for girls particularly, the need for control over their sexual and reproductive health.
Together with @UNICEF @MoHFW_INDIA@UNMGCY @PMNCH @iapewec @childhealthGI & the Kenyan Gov. we're calling to advance the global adolescent health agenda as an integral component of Universal Health Coverage. pic.twitter.com/0amsmKJYf8— PlanInternational UK (@PlanUK) 20 May 2019
As Plan International UK, we see the importance of this period of life every day in our work around the world – such as supporting young people to improve their access to quality youth-friendly information and health services, including sexual and reproductive health services, through the AstraZeneca Young Health Programme partnership.
But as Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, First Lady of Kenya, pointed out in her welcome address at the event, millions of adolescents are missing out on the health services and support they need to lead healthy lives.
As panellists discussed, the tragedy of this gap is that it not only harms individuals, it also represents a missed opportunity to improve the health of entire societies.
Investment in healthcare for adolescents delivers a 'triple dividend' – in addition to better health in this age group, it also delivers enhanced lifelong health and better health in future generations. This is what happens if positive choices and risk mitigation for young people are supported – this approach ensures they will be healthier for life.
To achieve this, agencies working on adolescent health, including Plan International, are united in saying: the current approach has to change.
As New Zealand youth activist Josiah Tualamali’I put it at the Geneva event, “we need to get out of our lane” and integrate adolescents right across the system.
Other young people at the event stressed the importance of investing in a range of interventions. And Child Health Initiative Global Health Ambassador Zoleka Mandela emphasised that adolescents needed to be kept safe from threats such as drugs, road deaths and violence as well as communicable diseases.
In summary, speakers noted, it’s simply not possible to deliver universal health coverage without including adolescents, designing and funding the services that meet their needs, and achieving the policy framework needed to tackle some of the greatest risks they face. Adolescents cannot be left out of plans for Universal Health Coverage any longer.
As Joy Phumaphi of the Independent Accountability Panel for Every Woman, Every Child told attendees, “By 2030, over three billion adolescents will have gone through our hands. We have a moment of opportunity. Let’s all bite the bullet.”
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