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Study: More African Doctors, Nurses Working Abroad Than at Home

A new study reveals that more African doctors and nurses are working abroad than at home, which it says is contributing to the worsening shortage of health care professionals in Africa. From London, Tendai Maphosa has more in this report for VOA.

The new study says some 65,000 African-born physicians and 70,000 African-born professional nurses were working overseas in developed countries by the year 2000. It says this represents about one in five African-born physicians and about one-tenth of African-born professional nurses. According to the British government, more than 17,000 doctors and nurses from Africa were recruited in 2007 to work in Britain.

Co-author of the report, Gunilla Pettersson of Sussex University in the UK, tells VOA that the brain drain is cause for concern.

"The health situation in Africa is dire, so we are very interested in the impact of these emigration flows," she said.

Pettersson says working conditions for African medical professionals must be improved to encourage them to remain in their own countries.

Analysts have long stressed an obvious link between economic and political instability and a brain drain.

The new health care study cites several examples of countries beset by civil war in the 1990s such as Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. It says those countries lost more than 40 percent of their physicians by 2000. The report says Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, which went through decades of economic stagnation, lost more than half of their physicians.

The United States and the UK are among the top destinations for African health professionals.

Britain's National Health Service has a policy against directly recruiting medical personnel from sub-Saharan Africa, but it does accept African health professionals through recruitment agencies.

Abi Smith, a spokesperson for the British Medical Association, says her organization is concerned about the medical brain drain in Africa. She says the association is encouraging African governments to improve training, working conditions and salaries for medical professionals in order to get them to stay at home. But, she says there is also a human rights issue, the right of individuals to move about as they wish.

"People do have human rights to move, and I wouldn't like to see any policy infringe that," she noted.

Mason Ford, a spokesman for the international humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), says donor governments are throwing hundreds of millions of dollars a year at HIV care in Africa. But he says developed countries and international donors can also do more to make it more attractive for medical professionals to stay in Africa.

"Next to nothing goes into improving the working conditions of healthcare staff," he said. " Donors have been very, very reluctant to pay salaries of health workers or pay for training through medical college. These measures really, really ought to be funded by the international community as well."

Ford says such assistance would provide long-term benefits for Africa by helping to stem the brain drain.

Experts compiling the new health care study acknowledge that the brain drain is not the only problem facing health care in Africa.

"For example, in South Africa two thirds of the physicians serve only about one-fifth of the population in the private sector," said report co-author, Gunilla Pettersson. "Another example in Mozambique, 70 percent of the physicians live in the capital Maputo so they are thousands of miles away from the most remote parts of the country where health conditions are worse."

The study, titled "New Data on African Health Professionals Abroad," was published by the online journal Human Resources for Health.