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Developing Countries Suffer from Health Care Brain Drain

The International Organization for Migration is warning that the growing migration of health workers from poor to rich countries is contributing to the breakdown of health systems in the developing world. Migration and health experts are holding a conference in Geneva intended to find ways to end the brain drain of health care workers from developing countries.

Isaac Cheke Yibe is a registered nurse from Malawi. He works for the National Health Service in Scotland in the department of surgery.

"I trained as a nurse from 1997 to 2001, and I worked in Malawi for three years before migrating to the United Kingdom in 2004, probably in search for career advancement, further training, new experiences, better remuneration," said Isaac Cheke Yibe. "And, so far I would say that I made a good decision for myself and possibly my family."

Francis Kimani Mwihia has seen this phenomenon play out in his own country. He is senior deputy director of medical services in Kenya's ministry of health. While the problems are recognized, he says they are hard to correct.

"When you take the most important resources from a poor country, you destabilize the poor country and the country finds it very difficult to improve the same condition because to improve the same condition usually requires the same brain which has gone out of that country," said Francis Kimani Mwihia. "Therefore, it becomes very difficult to improve the reasons or the causes of migration and this becomes a vicious circle."

The migration of health care workers is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since the 1970s. But the director of migration health for the International Organization for Migration, Danielle Grondin, says the issue has taken on greater importance in recent years because of the aging populations in developed countries.

"There is increased demand for health personnel from many developed countries due to the population aging in these countries that will create or has started to create special health needs at a time of shrinking population and reduced available work force," said Danielle Grondin. "More than 150,000 Filipino nurses and 18,000 Zambian nurses went abroad in 2000 and 2001."

IOM says the brain drain of health care workers is having a particularly devastating effect in Africa. It points out that the continent bears 25 percent of the world's burden of disease, but only 0.6 percent of the world's health care professionals. It says South African medical schools, for example, report that one third of its graduates emigrate to the developed world each year.

Experts at the meeting are searching for long-term solutions to the problem. They agree that it is not feasible, or legal to forbid health workers from going abroad, but they say their migration should be better managed.

They favor the adoption of international agreements and codes of practices to deal with the migration issue and to provide adequate health services in developed and developing countries.