Geneva: Giving nurses a voice

Beth Rowlands is a British nurse volunteering as a campaigner with Save the Children on child mortality and health workers. She has been attending the World Health Assembly (WHA) and reports on her second day.

Meeting Zambian nurses

Yesterday, I attended an event hosted by the International Council of Nurses where two Zambian nurses talked to me about the key challenges that countries like theirs face in providing comprehensive healthcare.

There isn’t enough equipment or drugs; staff are poorly supported and deal with large workloads for little pay. No wonder they become disillusioned and seek better jobs in more affluent countries. Both the nurses I spoke to were keen to improve training, support and pay so that nurses can do their jobs well and stay in Zambia.

Despite this conversation, I have met very few nurses here and I was surprised to hear how few of them work at the World Health Organisation. In December, I went on a trip to Liberia with 5 other Health Worker Campaigners from the UK. We visited rural clinics supported by Save the Children and learned about the challenges that Liberia faces in delivering healthcare to its citizens.

In ALL of the rural clinics we visited it was nurses and midwives (not doctors) delivering the healthcare. The campaigner role I have taken on with Save the Children has taught me a lot about the power and importance of advocacy at the highest levels and how it can achieve real change.

Nurses and midwives are fundamental to achieving universal health coverage ; they must be must be involved in decision-making within government health ministries and within the WHO so that they can fight to improve the training, pay and conditions for their professions.

World Bank president’s speech

After lunch Jim Kim, head of the World Bank gave a very impressive speech where he stated that the the World Bank is firmly behind the principle of eliminating user fees for health services, as even tiny out-of-pocket charges can drastically reduce the use of health services by poor people. He highlighted the shocking fact that 100 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty because of out-of-pocket health spending every year.

This struck a chord with me. I have worked in India with a small healthcare charity where almost every patient had not only sold all their valuables but also taken out massive loans to pay for medical treatment. They could never realistically repay these loans, which meant that paying for a loved one’s medical treatment could mean financial ruin for a whole family.

It was great to hear from Dr Kim that the World Bank is committed to reducing economic inequality by closing the gap in access to health services.

Scaling up nutrition

My day ended with a side event co-organised by Save the Children on nutrition. Ministers from Peru, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Brazil talked about strategies they are implementing to address under-nutrition in their countries. A representative from the Department for International Development talked about the Nutrition for Growth summit taking place on 8 June. This will coincide with The Big IF event in Hyde Park, London which will show the massive amount of public support for action to end hunger.

Great experience

It has been a great experience attending the WHA. I have met some really interesting people who are passionate about tackling inequalities in global health. This is cause for optimism: I hope that this emphasis on equity and justice will translate into action to improve the conditions for health workers like the ones I met in Liberia  – and by doing so, will help them in turn to save and improve more lives.

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