World Conference Probes Rich-Poor Health Care Gap

A Virginia hospital
A Virginia hospital
Peter Heinlein

In an effort to close the gap in the quality of care between wealthy and poor countries, health professionals from more than 100 nations are meeting in Ethiopia. The exit of doctors and nurses seeking better-paying jobs overseas is hurting progress toward better care in developing countries.

The 13th World Congress on Public Health is focused on the opportunities, but also the threats to improving the quality of health care in less developed countries.

Ethiopian Public Health Association President Dr. Tewabech Bishaw says this gathering is one step in a long struggle that began before the 1970s  “In the '70s there was the “Health For All” slogan, and everybody was agreed and committed to achieving health for all by the year 2000. Then in 2000 we set Millennium Development Goals with those targets.

We cannot just move the goalposts over and over, but be serious about these things and address them honestly in a manner of justice,” she said.

Tewabech says among the biggest obstacles to closing the quality gap in health care is the same as in many other areas of development.  The best and brightest are being attracted by better salaries and working conditions abroad.  She says wealthy nations should be made to pay poorer countries for the loss of their top professionals who emigrate in search of a better life.

"You see a lot of these professionals are moving to developed countries, and those countries in the developing world are losing their finances that they spend through training, and then losing their human resources that would have provided for the population.  There is injustice, unfairness in this.  It is about time these nations sit around the table and look squarely at the problems and issues of services so equitable apportioning of these resources are made," she said.

Tewabech says among the most pressing priorities is closing the gap in maternal and child mortality rates, which remain alarmingly high in developing countries despite repeated health campaigns.  She said the origin of the gap can be traced to traditional attitudes in many developing countries that favor boys over girls.

“Boys are preferred in a household, the availability of food, early marriage, and the lack of education, because if a family has a boy and a girl, and if because of circumstances they have to choose to send one to school, they will send the boy and not the girl.  So education has a lot to do with the well-being and survival of the children,” she said.

This is the second time the World Congress on Public Health has been held in Africa in its nearly 40-year history.  The event is jointly funded by several U.N and U.S. government entities, along with a host of private pharmaceutical, insurance and health-care companies.

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