WHO: Africa's hopes hinge on health care

Africa will never climb out of poverty unless devastating health challenges such as a “silent epidemic” of maternal and child death are tackled, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a report released on Monday.

Some of the biggest health problems Africans face, including the deaths of mothers during childbirth and chronic illness such as diabetes, are worsening despite attempts to reverse them, while infectious diseases still represent a lethal and crippling burden, the African Regional Health report said.

However, the WHO’s first report ever to focus on the health of 738-million Africans highlighted locally tailored success stories in tackling daunting problems like HIV/Aids and dangerous childbirth, which the continent needs to build on.

“We know what the challenges are, and we know how to address them—but we also need to recognise that Africa’s fragile health systems represent an enormous barrier to wider application of the solutions highlighted in this report,” said WHO African regional director Luis Gomes Sambo.

“If we are to continue moving forward, African governments and their partners must make a major commitment and invest more funds to strengthen health systems,” he added.

The report said: “African countries will not develop economically and socially without substantial improvements in the health of their people.”

Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, 19 are in Africa.

About 910 in 100 000 childbirths result in the death of an African mother, according to the latest data, an increase over a 1990 benchmark of 870 and even further away from the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of 228 by 2015.

The report said maternal, newborn and child sickness were “Africa’s ‘silent epidemic’, the tragedy that millions of mothers, newborn babies and children die every year from preventable, treatable diseases”.

In Mali, communities have clubbed together to provide 35 health centres with staff trained to deliver babies or perform emergency caesarean operations, providing skilled care for thousands of local women, the report said.

Childbirth-related deaths and communicable disease combined cause 72% of deaths in the WHO’s African region, which covers sub-Saharan Africa as well as Algeria.

HIV/Aids remains the leading cause of death for adults. The continent has 11% of the world’s population but an estimated 60% of the world’s burden of the disease, more than 20-million people.

The report highlighted Uganda’s move to train nurses to do work traditionally done by doctors, helping to deliver life-saving antiretroviral drugs to half of its HIV/Aids patients.

Botswana’s Health Minister Sheila Tlou said 75 000 of her country’s 300 000 HIV patients are now on anti-retrovirals.

“Antiretrovirals are working. Funeral parlours are closing because the business is not good.
People who spent their time in bed a few years ago are now up and about,” she told journalists.

Malaria is endemic in 42 of the 46 countries in the WHO’s African region, which accounts for up to 500-million or 90% of the world’s cases and one million deaths a year, especially among under-fives, the report said.

Other localised diseases such as river blindness, guinea worm or leprosy have been virtually eliminated by adopting effective treatment at community level with outside support, it added.

Africa is also confronting a growing burden of non-communicable disease, including cardiovascular problems and diabetes.

Along with accidents, they represented 27% of the continent’s total burden of ill-health, the report said.

In South Africa, a health-care train staffed by young doctors and medical students has reached deep into rural areas, providing treatment or screening for up to 1,3-million people.

“This report shows there are public health solutions that work in the African setting,” said Alpha Oumar Konare, chairperson of the African Union’s commission.—Sapa

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