Life expectancy in Africa rose by nearly 10 years between 2000 and 2019, from 46 years to 56 years, according to the World Health Organization's State of Health in Africa report released Thursday.
However, WHO officials note that is still well below the global average of 64 years. WHO Assistant Regional Director for Africa Lindiwe Makubalo warned the life expectancy gains could easily be lost unless countries strengthen and make greater investments in the development of health care systems.
Speaking from the Republic of Congo's capital, Brazzaville, she said Africa has made a good start in that direction over the past two decades. On average, she noted, access to essential services like basic primary health care improved to 46% in 2019 compared with 24% in 2000.
"Other factors include improvements in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health," Makubalo said. "Additionally, the rapid scale-up of health services to tackle infectious diseases such as HIV and TB, as well as malaria, over the past 15 years has been a strong catalyst for improved health life expectancy."
While progress has been made in preventing and treating infectious diseases, the report found health services for noncommunicable diseases are lagging. It says the dramatic rise in hypertension, diabetes, cancer and other noncommunicable diseases could jeopardize health gains if those conditions continue to be neglected.
The report says the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed greater disruptions to essential health services on the African continent compared to other regions of the world.
Makubalo said those disruptions might affect healthy life expectancy estimates.
"As governments work to restore affected health services, it is crucial not only to aim to re-establish health systems to pre-pandemic levels. Rather, it is important that significant improvements are made, and they are needed to ensure quality, equitable and accessible services for all," she said.
The report notes some progress has been made in achieving universal health coverage, but it is far from enough. Health officials say one of the key measures to improve access to health services is for governments to increase their public health budgets.
That, they say, would reduce the catastrophic out-of-pocket expenditures by households that are pushing millions of people into poverty.