Africa must take the quick wins on health – the time to act is now

Africa suffers disproportionally from infectious and childhood diseases, but this also presents it with opportunities for rapid gains and “quick wins” through the use of bednets, vaccines, and other prevention methods.

Disease and ill health can be expensive. First, they can prevent a person from working (or studying). Healthy family or community members may also be involved with care, rather than working or studying themselves. Second, they may be expensive to treat.

In low and middle income countries, sickness is a major obstacle to escaping from poverty. Ill health also poses a significant drag on countries’ economic growth.

Malaria carries a ‘growth penalty’ of up to 1.3% per year in some African countries, for example. HIV has similar negative effects on GDP. Over several years, these penalties add up to substantial differences in GDP.

Conversely, long-term investments in health bring high returns, improving productivity and educational outcomes. Every additional year of life expectancy that African countries achieve through better health interventions, may raise the region’s GDP by an estimated 4%.

An investment case for health in Africa, which calls for an increase in domestic financing, notes that an average increase in annual per capita spending of US$21-36 over a five year period could – in year five alone: save the lives of 3.1 million Africans; prevent between 3.8 and 5.1 million children from stunting; and yield economic benefits of as much as US$100 billion.

The economic returns from increased productivity, higher labor force participation, lower population growth and increased savings would amount to 11 times the total investment. Additionally, the social and intrinsic value on families and communities of healthier women and children, and a sharp reduction in maternal and child deaths, would be dramatic.

Prevention of infectious diseases can bring rapid improvements in life expectancy. Such prevention is relatively inexpensive and many countries should be able to cover it with their own economic growth.

In 2001, African nations committed to increase domestic health spending to at least 15 percent of national public expenditure by 2015. With one year to go, just six countries have achieved that goal; among AU member states, average health expenditure barely rose to 11 percent from 9 percent between 2001 and 2013.

Indeed, some countries, most dramatically Chad and Equatorial Guinea, but also Mozambique and Kenya, have actually cut their spending on health.

African nations must race against time. Rapid economic growth and urbanisation throughout the continent are already producing a rise in non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and road traffic injuries. Treatment will be expensive.

African countries must take the quick wins on health right now before the next set of challenges kick in.

Photo credit: John Rae

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