The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for collective efforts to improve public healthcare and achieve strong universal healthcare coverage in Africa in the long-term.

"We have seen many improvements, particularly in the availability of quality medicines in health facilities and strengthened capacities of staff in the sector," said the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, here over the weekend.

"However, good results require sustained efforts in the long-term; to obtain public health we need to see greater commitment, higher investment, and better governance from countries. Strong healthcare cannot exist without strong and well managed pharmaceutical systems."

Moeti was speaking in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where the European Union (EU), the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP), and the WHO met to review progress made in a joint four-year programme to improve access to quality medicines in 15 sub-Saharan African countries.

"One of our goals in this area is to help countries build the basis for universal health coverage and ensuring that access to medicines and all health products remains central to that effort," said the EU Head of Delegation in Ethiopia, Chantal Hebberecht.

As in many other regions of the world, barriers to accessing quality medicines in African countries were often linked to resource constraints in the health sector, insufficient skilled staff, weak implementation of pharmaceutical policies, and poorly managed supply chains.

These barriers in turn created fertile ground for the circulation of poor quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals, unaffordable prices, and generally low availability of the medicines needed in health facilities.

"Generic medicines in low-income countries are only available in about 58 % of facilities and on average cost 2.5 times more than the international reference price," said the WHO essential medicines and health products department director, Suzanne Hill.

"Affordability is the next problem. Most Africans have limited access to social protection schemes and pay for medicines out of pocket, often leading to further impoverishment."

The EU, ACP, and the WHO "renewed partnership" was established in 2012 with seed funding of Euro10 million to help achieve the health-related Millennium Development Goals and universal health coverage.

Under the leadership of their health ministries, the 15 ACP countries had benefitted from the WHO's strategic, technical, and monitoring support to increase access to quality essential medicines by strengthening their pharmaceutical systems.

According to the WHO, the specific objectives of the renewed partnership were to improve availability, affordability, and use of safe, effective, and quality-assured essential medicines for priority communicable and non-communicable diseases.

"The international community has positioned health as a pillar of the sustainable development agenda," ACP representative John F Kakule said.

"Access to affordable, quality essential medicines will continue to be a prerequisite for the aspiration of universal health coverage," he said.