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health

It can be argued that to have good health is far more important than being rich, being acclaimed as a sport or film superstar, enjoying a happy family life or having an interesting, exciting and well paid job. Health determines what you can achieve in life, where you can go, your state of mind in most cases and, your ability to make your own decisions. Good health, then, is vital if people are to make the most of their lives.

The health of people in north America and Europe improved immeasurably around 100 years ago with piped water coming on tap, improved sanitation and better nutritional levels. Complementing these advances was the increase in the number of doctors/ nurses being trained, more advanced operations being performed and new discoveries in medicines, all of which helped push life expectancies ever higher. The gradual introduction of health insurance and/or free national health services ensured that health care was available to everyone from the cradle to the grave 24/7. And today, in the rich countries of the North, it seems, scientists continue to conquer new frontiers in medicine allowing surgeons to perform more intricate operations and doctors to prescribe new and better drugs for patients. Nurses, who are mostly caring, then look after patients until they are ready to go home or move into a residential care centre.

In stark contrast, in countries in the South, with little money available and few trained doctors and nurses, most governments struggle to provide even basic healthcare. Poor as these countries are, increased pressure falls on their health services due to the effects of people drinking dirty water. It is estimated that 60% of hospital beds in Africa are occupied by patients with water-borne diseases such as dysentery, diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid. Danger to health also lurks in the developing world through poor sanitation and the open sewers running down the streets in shanty towns.

It is in the South then where the fiercest battles against disease are waged daily. But here, the fight for better health is often undermined when doctors and nurses, once trained, opt to leave their homeland to seek better opportunities with higher pay overseas. This aggravates an already dreadful health situation found in many developing countries where sometimes only 1 in 3 people have access to hospitals and medical centres. And even for these 'lucky ones', drugs, if there are any, are too expensive. As a result, modern advances in medicines and treatments are beyond their reach leaving the door open for diseases of epidemic proportions like HIV/AIDS and malaria, and, more recently in west Africa, ebola to run rampant. This often means the decimation of entire populations leaving children orphaned, industries depleted of skilled workers and average life expectancy spiralling downwards.

Just one story exemplifies the frailty of life in poor nations.

In a small town in Zambia, a mother brought her two children to the doctor - one was three years old, the other thirteen. Both were very sick. The doctor prescribed medicine for each of them. She thanked him and left. When he saw her again, some time later, he asked her how the children were and she told him that the younger one had died. She explained that, as she did not have enough money to pay for treatment for both children, with much pain, she decided to pay for the older child’s medicine. He got better quickly but the family had to watch, heartbroken, as the younger child died.

In the North a similar situation would provoke utter outrage leading to a government enquiry.... but in the South it is just an everyday occurrence.

One look at the comparable figures on health from countries in the North and South underlines this yawning gap in the provision of healthcare.

.

USA

UK
Japan
Bangladesh
Haiti
Niger
Average no patients per doctor
329
560
464
4049
4000
27599
No of patients to 1 hospital bed
314
266
79
2886
1234
6689
*Infant mortality-per
1000 live births
6.4
4.5
2.6
41
71
76
*no children who die before their 1st birthday
=Child mortality- per 1000
8
6
4
52
118
160
=no of children who die before their 5th birthday
Life expectancy
78
80
83
67
61
52
Access clean water %
100
100
100
80
71
48
% av daily intake calories FAO rec min req
143
135
118
95
92
91
Amount spent on health
US$ per cap
4873
2460
2558
11
31
7
Total health exp/GNI%
14.9
7.6
8.0
3.5
5.0
3.7

And it is with such poor health infrastructure that countries in the South also have to confront the world's major killer diseases like Malaria, TB and HIV AIDS.

MALARIA is a life threatening parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitos which is endemic in more than 100 countries and in 2015 it was estimated that there were 214m cases worldwide resulting in 584,000 deaths, 453.000 of which were children. However, the good news is that mortality rates for malaria have dropped by 60% globally since 2000. 88% of the malaria cases occur in Africa mostly among young children resulting in malaria being responsible for 1 in 3 hospital admissions there. A child in Africa has, on average, between 1.5 and 5.5 episodes of malarial fever every year. In Africa malaria kills a child every 2 minutes and is the leading cause of under-5 mortality there.

Vector control is the main way to prevent and reduce malaria transmission. Two froms of vector control are effective in a wide range of circumstances: insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) and indoor residual spraying. Over the last 15 years, there has been a major increase in coverage of ITNs in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2015, more than half (56%) of the population had access to an ITN, compared to less than 2% in 2000. In 2015 120 million people globally were protected by indoor residual spraying, including 50 million in Africa. About 6% of the population at risk of malaria in Africa live in households protected by indoor residual spraying.

After years of research, the first ever malaria vaccine has just been developed by GlaxoSmithKline. Here trials have indicated a halving of malaria cases in young children and a reduction of about a quarter in cases of infants. And now European drugs regulators have recommended it should be licensed so the company will now start roll out the vaccine selling it at just a fraction over cost price with the promise to invest any profits into further tropical disease research. Soon, then, a combination of this new vaccine, bednets and insecticide spraying should help to keep reducing dramatically the number of malaria cases. Malaria makes people feverish and unable to work and many of those who survive an attack can suffer from brain damage. In economic terms it is estimated that malaria costs Africa $12bn (£9.6bn) or 1.3% GNI annually in lost productivity. This tragic disease has been responsible for more deaths throughout history than any other but now it may at last start to be brought under control.

TUBERCULOSIS (TB) is a contagious disease and like the common cold it spreads through the air. It is a disease of poverty affecting mostly young adults in their most productive years. The vast majority of deaths are in the developing world where only 1 in 4 sufferers from the disease has access to effective medical treatment. The latest figures from WHO show that the number of people falling ill with TB in 2014 was estimated at 9.6 million and 1.5 million died from the disease down from a peak of 1.8 million in 2003. It is estimated by WHO that effective diagnosis and treatment of TB saved an estimated 43 million lives between 2000 and 2014. Left untreated each TB sufferer will infect on average 10 -15 people each year. TB drugs have been around for more than 3 decades and cost as little as $10 (£8) for a 6 - 8 month course of treatment. However, even at this price, many sufferers in the developing world cannot afford drugs and without treatment 70% of them will die. Ending the TB epidemic by 2030 is among the health targets of the newly adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals.

HIV/AIDS - Since being discovered in 1981, it is estimated AIDS has infected 78m people killing 35m and in sub-Saharan Africa it has become a pandemic comparable to the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century. The United Nations Aids Agency has recently revised down the number of people suffering from AIDS around the world from a previously estimated 39.5m to 37m but according to the Global Fund 19m of these do not know their status. In other words, one out of every two people living with HIV does not know that they are HIV-positive and therefore does not access tratment and care. They are then at risk of passing the virus on to others. The number of new infections is also down to an estimated 2.1m in 2015 from 3.2m in 1997. Of this latest total of 37m, 25.8m of them live in sub-Saharan Africa where an estimated 0.75m people died from the disease in 2015 out of a world wide total of 1.1m. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of AIDS-related deaths in 2015 was 48% lower than in 2005. There AIDS still results in more deaths than any other infectious disease and is depriving some of the poorest countries of their most economically productive workforce. For example, at its height, in countries like Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe there were large numbers of teachers with AIDS who were dying faster than they could be replaced. South Africa still has the largest number of people (5.4m) living with AIDS whilst Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world with 23.9% of the population infected. However, thanks to organisations like the Global Fund, about 46% of all those needing treatment are now receiving it.
And according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the world is poised to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030 - provided it can accelerate the pace of progress achieved globally over the past 15 years. But here it will depend not only in maintaining current annual funding of US$22bn (£17.6bn) but increasing this figure to US$30bn (£24bn) by 2020. A way to go then but already much has been achieved - and in 2015 the Millennium Development Goal that called for the halting and reversing the spread of HIV on a global basis was met.

Almost everywhere you look in sub-Saharan Africa AIDS has wreaked a terrible toll resulting in 1 in 10 children being orphaned and left to be looked after by grandparents - if they are still alive. Otherwise the eldest child has had to become the breadwinner sacrificing his/her own future to bring up brothers and sisters many of whom will themselves have AIDS. And as orphans these children will undoubtedly have a high risk of malnutrition, suffer from the stress of seeing their parents die and probably never see a school classroom.

Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have been slow to address the problem of AIDS mainly because of the lack of finance, government commitment and a fragmented health service. But a notable exception to this rule has been Uganda whose government was quick to move into action and as a result the infection rate there has now fallen from 30% in 1990 to just 6%.

When it came to tackling prevention the Ugandan government used a combination a massive advertising through the media trying to alert youngsters of the dangers of unprotected sex and by the use of posters. The ABC approach - Abstain, Be faithful and use a Condom - was the favoured method. At the same time health services in poor countries are also starting to screen blood before transfusion so that patients do not become infected in that way.

In 2002, the UN launched the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria calculating that to make an impact it would need to raise US$7bn - US$10 bn annually. This has not been met but in December, 2013 world leaders pledged US$12bn for the next three years up from US$9.2bn in 2010. Supported by OECD countries and international charities including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Fund has become one of the most powerful tools in the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria. As at 30 June, 2014 the Fund has financed more than 900 programmes in 150 countries saving an estimated 9 million lives and turned the tide against these terrible diseases: new HIV infections have been cut by 20%, malaria deaths in Africa are down by one third and TB deaths worldwide have fallen by more than 40%. In raw figures the Global Fund is providing HIV treatment for more than 8.1 million people in 2015, up from 5.3 million in 2013; 11.9 million people have been treated for TB, up from 11 million people in 2013, and the Fund has distributed 410 million bednets to prevent malaria, an increase of 14%. (Studies have found that if a person living with HIV is receiving anti retroviral therapy the risk of transmitting the virus to their sexual partner is reduced by up to 96%.) The battle against these diseases then is slowly starting to be won thanks mainly to the Global Fund and the huge reduction in the cost of AIDS drugs where annual treatment costs are down from US$20,000 15 years ago to as little as US$200 today.

Governments in developed countries should also use this opportune moment to go further in helping poor countries in the South combat disease. At present only 10% of global health research addresses 90% of global disease problems as there is little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to fund development into finding a cure for diseases found mainly in the third world as people there would not be able to afford the drugs. Governments in rich countries, then, should offer to fund research into not just AIDS but all tropical diseases like malaria, dengue fever, ebola etc on the basis of richly rewarding success - and paying nothing for failure. This should fuel massive research and when success comes it would dramatically change the health landscape in the developing world. Now that would not only be globalisation at its best, it would be one of the best investments ever made on the globe. [On average, the time taken to develop a new drug from scratch takes 14 years and costs an estimated US$1.2bn (£0.96bn)].

Finally it would help third world nations enormously in developing their own health services if OECD countries refused to poach doctors and nurses trained there. In a recent 'Lancet' investigation in Africa it was found that:-

- 23,000 doctors and nurses leave Africa every year. Only 50 of the 600 doctors trained in Zambia in the last few years are still in that country and there are more Ethiopian doctors in the US than there are in Ethiopia

- out of every 4 nurses who complete their training in Malawi: 1 migrates, 1 takes a better paid job in another sector, 1 dies of AIDS and only 1 remains in nursing in the country.

These are ludicrous health statistics on medical personnel from the world's most blighted continent and represent an appalling loss of talent to those impoverished countries.

Rich countries, then, should not only stop encouraging doctors and nurses trained in Africa from coming to work over here they should move to reverse the process altogether by offering to train doctors and nurses from the developing world on the understanding they return to their own countries. Then even more progress can be made towards the ideal of one day decent medical services being made available to everyone in every country in Africa.

(Amazingly, according to WHO, life expectancy in Africa has risen from 40.5 years in 1960 to 60 years in 2014 due to more child vaccinations, malaria control and better HIV treatment.)

[In a report published in January 2016 it was disclosed that there are more than 4 million diabetics in Britain and that 2 out of 3 adults weigh too much. The UK spends £6 bn per annum on the medical costs of obesity and a further £10bn on dealing with diabetes. UK ministers are currently considering taxing sugary drinks as an effective way to discourage unhealthy eating. But Prime Minister Theresa May and her ministers should consider going further by encouraging people to exercise more. It is ludicrous, for example, that the average car journey in the UK is only 8 miles with 1/4 of these being of less than 1 mile.]

 
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