Photo/IllutrationAnthony Lake, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Provided by the United Nations Children’s Fund)

In much of the world today, the notion of equitable, universal access to health care remains a distant dream. But universal health coverage is not unattainable--and Japan is among the inspiring countries that have proved it.

For many years, Japan has been a leader in the movement to provide everyone with access to quality health care. Every human being, everywhere, deserves this, and every society benefits from it.

Having achieved universal health coverage for its own citizens in 1961, Japan now provides financing and support to help extend coverage to the world’s most underserved communities. The Universal Health Coverage Forum, an international event hosted by the government of Japan on Dec. 13 and 14 in Tokyo, is just the latest proof of this commitment to leave no one behind.

Despite such efforts, the line between health and sickness--and even between life and death--is still determined far too often not by any failure of medical science, but by stark economic inequalities. Those who can afford treatment and care are much more likely to survive and recover than those who cannot. It’s as simple, and as unjust, as that.

Inequitable health coverage is not only unjust. It also undermines the strength of societies. In the same way that every child needs health care from the earliest moments of life to reach his or her potential, every society depends on a healthy, productive population to realize its aspirations.

When entire segments of a country’s population--including its most disadvantaged children--are condemned to uncertain health and a higher risk of mortality, the country’s future development and stability are undermined.

At a time when many health systems continue to fail the most marginalized citizens, we must make progress for all people at all income levels. Universal health coverage is an opportunity for every country to create a more level playing field for all its citizens, regardless of their income, who they are or where they live.

In fact, we achieve greater progress, more quickly, when we focus on the poorest and most disadvantaged in our societies. In 2010, a UNICEF analysis found that while it costs more to reach the hardest to reach with quality health services, those additional costs are dramatically outweighed by the additional results. A new UNICEF analysis reinforces that conclusion, finding that every $1 million (112.2 million yen) invested in fighting child mortality in the poorest communities saves nearly twice as many lives as investments that do not focus on the most disadvantaged.

With more results achieved per dollar invested, giving priority to those in the greatest need is the fastest way to achieve universal health coverage.

So the moral logic of universal coverage is clear: It’s the right thing to do. And this moral logic is matched by strategic logic: Improving the health of the most deprived--and, by extension, increasing their longevity and productivity--helps societies break intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

And yet this logic is not being adequately reflected by government policies and actions in many places. It is time for that to change.

Real progress is as feasible as it is necessary. Countries can make progress, for example, by providing primary health services at the community level and establishing cadres of health workers, particularly in remote areas. They can better integrate health services with other efforts linked to health care, such as nutrition, sanitation and infrastructure. And throughout their health systems--from neonatal and newborn care onwards--they should maintain a focus on the quality of the preventive and curative services being provided.

The Tokyo forum offered a great chance to galvanize support for the implementation of these and other policies where they are needed most. The moral and strategic logic of universal health care demands that we seize this opportunity.

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This article was contributed by Anthony Lake, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund.