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Africa's sickly population is a huge barrier to development. So what should be done?


Article Summary: The lax attitude by African heads of state on matters of health remains a major impediment to development on the continent. The ball is in the court of the political leadership.

Author Biography: Nnyombi Mohamood is a journalist and commentator on social and political issues.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says regardless of promises of better healthcare by governments and donor countries, millions of mothers, newborn babies and children continue to die each year in Africa from preventable diseases.

The WHO found that some of the continent's biggest problems are getting worse and the rates of death during childbirth and among young children are increasing. Although Africa has 11 percent of the global population, it has 60 percent of the world's HIV/AIDS cases and 90 percent of world malaria cases, mainly in children under 5.

While diseases such as polio, measles and leprosy have almost been eradicated, there is a steady growth of "lifestyle" medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. On top of that, the WHO report points out that only 58 percent of the people living in sub-Saharan Africa have access to safe drinking water.

Health and Development are two sides of the same coin. There can be no sustainable economic development within a nation without a healthy population. Poverty and poor health status are inextricably linked and in recent years have been complicated by the devastation of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The impact of this pandemic has been felt most on the African continent. Most deaths in developing countries are needless and preventable. Malaria, acute respiratory illness, HIV/AIDS and diarrheal disease account for a large percentage of the disease burden on the continent. Most of these illnesses can be treated for less than a dollar but on a continent where the majority of people live on less than that, the most frequent outcome is death.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) agreed upon by United Nations member states in 2002 have a common goal; the elimination of global poverty by the year 2015. Of the eight MDGs, three are directly health related; MDG’s 4, 5 and 6, whilst another two are indirectly health goals.

These reinforce the correlation between health and development in the nations of the world. MDGs 4, 5 and 6 are about maternal health, child health and HIV/AIDS respectively. According to the United Nations, globally every minute a woman dies from complications in childbirth, resulting in about 529,000 deaths each year, primarily occurring in developing nations. 

The African Regional Health Report, the first study to look at health trends among 738 million Africans, said more investment was needed to cut disease and tackle poverty and because of AIDS and armed conflicts, the health situation in many African countries has not improved in recent years and in some cases has worsened.

Are Africans paying a deaf ear?

Every now and then, African countries have been urged to develop solutions for fighting disease and improving health for development. Believe me or not, the very Africans know what the challenges are, and how to address them. Yes, African governments and their partners must make a major commitment and invest more funds in the health sectors, because African countries will not develop economically and socially without substantial improvements in the health of their people.

African heads of state are very much aware that there is a need for every country to avail at least 50 percent of all HIV/AIDS patients with life-saving antiretroviral medicine. An innovative programme that trains nurses to do some of the work traditionally done by doctors and community health workers to take on some of the work of nurses should be adopted.

There is need to develop community cost-sharing schemes to  community health centres with staff trained to deliver babies and perform emergency caesarian sections, making skilled obstetric care available to thousands of women who could not previously afford it. This system has gradually addressed Mali’s perplexing health woes. National institutions in many African countries are often weak, leaving governments open to corruption, and conflict has affected several African countries with devastating consequences for health. HIV and AIDS have undoubtedly contributed.

The lax attitude by African heads of state on matters of health remains a major impediment to development in Africa. Tax-payers’ money that would have been meant for health is swindled  without any sense of shame yet on average, one in every 14 adults in Africa is infected with HIV, a rate much higher than in any other part of the world. The resulting pressures on health workers are immense, and the sad situation described by any clinical officer in Uganda is by no means unique.

Donors providing budget support usually require governments to increase their social sector spending, but increases in spending on health do not necessarily follow (primary education has relatively been given more priority).

Furthermore, although overall government expenditure on health is very low in Africa (typically around US$ 6 per person), the money is mostly spent on providing services such posh cars to health ministers, ghost workshops as well  as tertiary hospitals, which are expensive and mainly benefit the better off. Non-governmental organizations, which are important providers of health care to deprived populations in many African countries, may not benefit from increased aid flows to government.