The World Health Organization is urging governments to adopt primary health care and universal coverage as the best ways of improving health and saving lives.  This year's World Health Report says primary health care can provide billions of people fairer access to health care.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

This year's report commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Alma-Ata Conference, which put primary health care on the international political agenda. 

Primary health care offers a holistic approach.  It operates at the community level, allowing people to have easier access to medical care.

The doctrine espoused in 1978 was aimed at improving health in deprived populations by tackling health problems at an early stage, before they got out of hand.  

However, 30 years later, the promise of Alma-Ata has not been fulfilled.  The World Health Organization reports differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest countries now exceed 40 years.

An estimated 136 million women will give birth, this year.  Yet, WHO says around 58 million of them will receive no medical assistance, endangering their lives and that of their infants.

WHO Assistant Director-General for Information, Evidence and Research Timothy Evans says the world's health picture during the past 30 years has been generally positive.  

But, he tells VOA even more children's lives could have been saved had more countries embraced primary health care.

"If all countries had performed at the higher end, than that figure could have been three million deaths annually instead of nine million deaths, annually," Evans said.  "So, we know that there is a tremendous amount more that needs to be done in order to reach health opportunities for all."  

The report finds the amount of money governments spend every year on health varies widely from $20 to $6,000, per person.    It says, for 5.6 billion people in low and middle income countries, more than half of all health care expenditure is through out-of-pocket payments.

It says more than 100 million people are pushed below the poverty line each year, by rising health care costs.   Evans says universal coverage would ease this situation.  It would give all people access to health care, regardless of their ability to pay. 

"The evidence globally is very clear," Evans said.  "In countries where you have to pay out of pocket when you access health care, people are much less likely to access health care at the right time.  They tend to wait until it is too late, when either there is very little that can be done for them or what is done for them is extremely expensive and not often effective." 

Evans says primary health care is best suited to deal with a whole host of new risks today associated with chronic illnesses.

"We are saying that those risks to ill health need to be aggressively addressed with the appropriate policies, in order to effectively prevent them from becoming major health problems," he said.

The World Health Organization says strong and committed leadership is often more important than money, in providing good health care.  It says countries with poor resources - such as Sri Lanka, Kerala State in India, and Oman, which was poor in the 1970s - have greatly improved the health of their people by embracing primary health care and universal coverage.