Health care: from commitments to action

If there is one area that vividly sums up Africa’s development challenges, it is the field of health. Every year, lack of access to basic health care, mostly caused by poor funding, contributes to millions of deaths, untold suffering and harrowing health tragedies on the continent.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa carries 25% of the world’s disease burden but its share of global health expenditures is less than 1%. Worse still, it manufactures only a fraction—less than 2%—of the medicines consumed on the continent. A majority of Africans, mostly the poor and those in the middle-income bracket, rely on under-funded public health facilities while a small minority has access to well-funded, quality private health care.

In 2001, African countries agreed to allocate at least 15% of their budgets to health care. Yet 15 years later, only six countries (Botswana, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda and Zambia) have met this commitment. Even in these countries, universal access to decent health care is still unrealized.

It takes a lot of ingenuity to turn the ship around. For example, Rwanda has managed to setup a national health insurance scheme which now covers 91% of all Rwandans. This is in sharp contrast to other African countries where medical insurance schemes cover, on average, less than 8% of the population, according to WHO.

There are a few bright spots in fighting some diseases. Africa is finally making headway in the fight against malaria, the leading cause of deaths in the region. WHO announced last year that the global incidence of malaria had finally been slowed, largely due to a massive rollout of mosquito nets, anti-malaria medicines and use of insecticides.

Over the past decade, thanks to heightened emphasis on prevention, treatment and care, the rate of new HIV infections is slowing down as more infected people are receiving antiretroviral drugs.

Africa’s key challenge, however, is confronting what still needs to be done. Governments should concentrate on providing access to basic health care and affordable drugs, training more community health workers and extending medical insurance coverage through creative partnerships with the private sector. UN Africa Renewal

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