Welcome and first plenary session address - Revitalizing primary health care for the 21st century to achieve universal health coverage

Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Minister of Health of Kazakhstan, Director-General of WHO, Executive Director of UNICEF, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen


On behalf of WHO, let me welcome you all to the European Region with its 53 Member States, and more specifically welcome you to Kazakhstan.

Forty years ago, the global health community gathered in Alma-Ata for a groundbreaking conference, which brought a new paradigm to health and health development.

The legacy of the Alma-Ata Conference still inspires us and this anniversary provides us with a good opportunity to remember why it influenced our work to such an extent. The historical documents are just as valid today as they were 40 years ago: the WHO Constitution, the Alma-Ata Declaration and the report of the Conference give us substantial directions for our work.

What is the legacy of Alma-Ata?

The Conference strongly stipulated:

  • The commitment to health in its broad definition;
  • Health as a fundamental human right;
  • The need for political commitment and social contract;
  • Equity in health and social equity (which appeared for the first time on the international agenda)
  • Health as part of development
  • The need for intersectoral action
  • The commitment to targets to monitor progress.

The Conference connected health and well-being, quality of life and world peace. It called on the world community to consider health as the main social target so that people could lead economically and socially productive lives. This is how the Health For All movement was borne, which inspired our work for such a long time and continues to do so. It lives on in the Sustainable Development Goals, General Programme of Work, and in the European Region in Health 2020.

The Alma-Ata Conference was also held in the spirit of strong and close cooperation between the Member States with regard to health and health development and a deep commitment to WHO, in spite of the Cold War. This is how we achieved consensus on such a complex agenda with groundbreaking initiatives.

The international conference of 1978 achieved a status in history that is the ambition of every event and declaration that has followed.

Building on this ambition, we continue our work for a world where everyone has access to health and health services.

We have a renewed commitment to this aim: the SDGs show the way, and the new strategic directions of WHO and the General Programme of Work with its ambitious triple billion target for the three main strategic directions and priorities, clearly signal our intentions. Universal health coverage and primary health care with public health functions will lead the way! Thanks to dr Tedros for his leadership!

We know how much has been accomplished and how much work is still ahead on our journey towards our goals. The moment for action, for political commitment at the highest level, for making a PHC approach our core and common business, is now. There is no UHC without PHC. This calls on governments to take responsibility for their people – just like when the Health for All movement first began.

Yesterday in Almaty, in this historical spot, the Summit of Mayors of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network, in a pre-conference event, committed to an Acclamation of Mayors, to support the renewed commitment to implement PHC. At a similar pre-conference event yesterday, the Kazakh National Medical University, a community of researchers, scientists, experts, policy-makers and medical students discussed ways to raise the prestige of primary health care, and reviewed a list of accelerators such as the training of multi-professional teams; the link between health and social care; rethinking of incentives; and task shifting – to name just a few. These will be further discussed at this conference. It is multidisciplinary work, whole-policy/system-thinking, and integrated, interconnected ways of working that will mark this new era of development for PHC.

As we come together, turning the page to start a new chapter in PHC, we will be called on to recommit to the values and principles of primary health care – but also to re-think these principles with our deepened understanding of their meaning in practice, in the realities of today and in the future of our countries.

Now, we have the opportunity to make our mark.

It begins with those in this room. It is our responsibility to ignite this new era of primary health care – one that accelerates implementation and collective action to realize a PHC approach once and for all. It is up to us to leave no one behind. A lot has been achieved but more remains to be done. There were times when implementation has been the greatest challenge of the Declaration. This is exactly the lesson this conference sets out to address.

We have the opportunity to set a precedent for the future.

That future starts now.

Ladies and Gentlemen! I would like to use this opportunity to express our gratitude to our predecessors for the foresight and wisdom they brought to the Alma-Ata Conference. Dr Halfdan Mahler, the charismatic leader and Director-General of WHO, Henry Labouisse, the Executive Director of UNICEF, Dr Leo Kaprio, WHO Regional Director for Europe who so ably led the work in the European Region during the Cold War, and all other RDs; in the host country: Professor Petrovsky, Minister of Health of the USSR, who was elected as President of the Conference and led the deliberations, Professor Venediktov, his Deputy and Professor Sharmanov, the then Minister of Health of the Kazakh Republic (who is here with us today). Thanks also to the 134 governments and 67 UN organizations and NGO’s that actively participated and also to those cities and regions who invited the participants of the conference for field visits to acquaint them with the work of their health institutions, such as Alma-Ata, Frunze, Karaganda, Chimkent, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. The Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek Republics played a particularly important role in the success of the Conference.

Our thanks go to all of those who played a crucial  role in the preparations and conduct  of such a groundbreaking conference.

We follow in your footsteps.

With this, I wish us all a successful outcome of this important event.