Reclaiming the Vision of Alma Ata

May 20, 2003 10:21 AM EDT

"Go back to the principles of primary health care: reviving Alma Ata is the most important step to ensure 'Health For All'," said a 16-18 May consultation in Geneva facilitated by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Peoples Health Movement.

The Peoples Health Movement is a grassroots movement present in nearly 100 countries. The Geneva consultation, timed to take place just before the 56th World Health Assembly, reminded the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the international community about their promise to the people of the world. The promise - of 'Health for All by the Year 2000' - was formulated in an historic 1978 statement - the Alma Ata declaration.

The Geneva consultation galvanized grassroots health workers, academics, the original architects of Alma Ata, peace groups and other civil society representatives from across the globe. "We demand health for all NOW!" was the participants' unanimous demand. At a time when over 30,000 children die every day worldwide from preventable diseases, it was an appropriate call.

"I believe in people. People's health is safest in people's hands. The objective is to empower individuals and communities with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve health for themselves," said one consultation participant, Dr John Oommen from Orissa, India.

For the WCC, bringing together the grassroots and policy-makers is important, while bringing the voices of "the unheard" to the fore is part of the responsibility of the church.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the historic Alma Ata international conference on primary health care (PHC) which proclaimed the goal of 'Health for All by the Year 2000'. In fact, the church-related health programmes who were the original members of the Christian Medical Commission (CMC), established within the WCC in 1968, were inventing PHC well before that conference. Studies done (1973-75) to prepare for Alma Ata used a number of their programmes as examples of successful primary health care work.

In 1974, Dr Halfdan Mahler, then director general of WHO, established a joint committee with CMC director James McGilvray and the-then director of the WCC's Division of World Mission and Evangelism, Rev. Lesslie Newbigin to explore cooperation in matters "of mutual concern". These meetings led WHO to later formulate the principles of primary health care.


Following Alma Ata, the CMC journal CONTACT was used as a tool for social change in the health sector, and church health-coordinating agencies throughout the world were encouraged and facilitated to work with their member churches and health programmes to make primary health care a priority. Since then, the churches' continued involvement in health care around the world shows that Alma Ata's vision of 'Health for All' and primary health care are still as vital and relevant as ever, especially in contexts of poverty.

Through CMC, the WCC thus played a crucial role in the development of the primary health care concept. "We celebrate the achievements of the past 25 years, while recognizing that the goal of 'Health for All' has not been achieved," said a WCC delegation slated to participate in the World Health Assembly. (The WCC has consultative status with WHO and provides a key platform for civil society input to WHO assemblies.)

"We renew our determination to respond to the needs of the poorest and most marginalized through our membership, and reaffirm our commitment to the goal of 'Health for All' and the principles of primary health care, empowering people to adapt them according to their local realities," the delegation affirmed.

The following members of the WCC delegation to the World Health Assembly are available for interviews:

Natalia CEBOTARENCO, director, DrugInfo Moldova, board member, Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (Moldova)

Gabi HETLER, coordinator, German Institute for Medical Mission (DIFAM)

Manoj KURIAN, programme executive for Health, Healing and Wholeness, WCC Mission & Ecumenical Formation team

Samuel MWENDA, director, Health Association of Kenya

Patricia NICKSON, dean, Panafrican Institute for Community Health (Dem. Rep. Congo)

Eva OMBAKA, director, WCC Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (Tanzania)

J.C.OMMEN, head, Community Health Department, Christian Hospital, Orissa, (India)

Eric RAM, former director, World Vision and former director, WCC/CMC (Switzerland)

David SANDERS, professor of Community Health, University of Western Cape (South Africa)

Jose UTRERA, coordinator, Dutch Working Group on Health and Development Issues (WEMOS) (Netherlands)

By Albert H. Lee
[email protected]