A new report finds the health of people in Africa is worse than in any other part of the world. But, the report by the World Health Organization also presents a number of success stories that show Africa can tackle its own health problems. This report, for the first time, focuses on the health of the 738 million people living in 46 countries in the African region.
On the one hand, the report is a compilation of grim statistics. On the other hand, it offers numerous examples of cases where countries have faced up to their own problems and have improved the health of their people.
While Africa has 11 percent of the world's population, the report notes 60 percent of the people live with HIV. It finds more than 90 percent of the estimated 300 to 500 million malaria cases every year are in Africa. It says a growing number of mothers are dying in childbirth and so-called "lifestyle diseases" such as diabetes, heart attacks and stroke are on the increase.
At the same time, the report says there are signs across the continent that Africa is finding African approaches to solving its health problems.
Sheila Tlou is Minister of Health of Botswana, a country that has one of the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world. In 1999, she says Botswana embarked on an aggressive anti-AIDS program. Since then, she says drugs have reduced mother to child transmission of HIV from 91 percent to 6.7 percent. She says 85 percent of the infected population is now on anti-retroviral drugs.
"What has happened has been a decrease in mortality. A vivid example," she said. "A lot of funeral parlors are closing because business is not good anymore. People are well. They have gone back to work. They have gone back to the fields and, indeed, as a result of ARD (anti-retroviral drugs), the number of orphans is decreasing."
While pleased with these results, the minister says prevention efforts must be increased. She says the program will not be sustainable unless the level of infection goes down.
WHO Assistant director-general for Family and Community Health, Joy Phumaphi, calls the high rate of maternal and newborn mortality in Africa a silent epidemic. But, even here, she says, community initiatives can work. She cites the example of the Soroto District in Uganda which reduced maternal mortality by more than 300 within a three-year period.
"These successes can be translated into effective benefits for not only in the Soroto district and not only in Uganda, but in communities all over Africa," she said. "So long as we appreciate that the African context is not the same as the context in other communities. So long as we appreciate that primary health care is a basic critical foundation to health care services that has to be strengthened."
The World Health Organization acknowledges the success stories are not widespread. But, it says governments can build on lessons learned from these interventions. It says some of these measures do not cost much, whereas others are more expensive and complex. It notes over time the region can address the health challenges it faces, given sufficient international support.