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The Elders at Prince Mahidol Award Conference 2017, Bangkok, 1-2 February 2017

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Two Elders visited Thailand in February 2017 to speak at an annual public health conference. Gro Harlem Brundtland emphasised the importance of inclusive health policy and Ernesto Zedillo explained how to sustainably finance Universal Health Coverage.

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ernesto Zedillo attended this prestigious annual public health conference in the Thai capital Bangkok to advocate The Elders’ arguments for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) to an expert audience.

The theme of the 2017 conference was Addressing the Health of Vulnerable Populations for an Inclusive Society. Around 900 participants from 72 countries attended, including political leaders, officials from ministries of health and international organisations, and representatives from CSOs, NGOs, the media and academia.

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ernesto Zedillo both gave keynote speeches at the conference. Dr Brundtland also addressed one of the parallel sessions, as did Jenny Yates, Programme Director at The Elders.

In her speech, Dr Brundtland emphasised the importance for the health of vulnerable populations of tackling the social determinants of health – reducing inequalities and eliminating discrimination in other sectors, such as education, housing, employment and agriculture – and tackling environmental protection.

She advocated a focus on advancing UHC as the best way of achieving health for all. She expanded on The Elders’ key messages on UHC by explaining the key reforms that experience shows all countries can take to create a functioning primary healthcare system, noting in particular the lessons from the Thai health reforms.

In his keynote speech, Ernesto Zedillo outlined his efforts as President of Mexico in the 1990s to increase social inclusion through the introduction of Progresa, a conditional cash transfer programme that has since been extensively studied and replicated in a number of other countries.

Dr Zedillo’s explicit recommendation that “general tax revenues should be the preferred best financing source” for UHC caused particular interest and comment by the audience – particularly as this message was delivered by a former head of state and an economist.

The Elders’ speeches at PMAC were very well received both in the well-attended conference hall and on social media (notably Twitter). Feedback from conference delegates was particularly appreciative of the political focus of both speeches in tackling the human rights and economic aspects of inclusive health reforms.

Alongside their public speeches at the conference, the Elders also held bilateral meetings with key players in the UHC community, with a particular focus on India where much progress is being made at certain State levels.

These included a lunch with the Minister of Health for Delhi State from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); Professor Amartya Sen; the former Union Secretary of the Indian Ministry of Health and a senior official from the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India. Side meetings were also held with a Senator championing UHC in the Philippines and with senior officials in the World Bank and WHO.

The conference was an effective forum for highlighting Elders’ perspectives on UHC, and for consolidating networks and contacts that will inform continued engagement on this topic throughout 2017.

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