Over four million people in northern Kenya are facing severe hunger as the worst drought in 40 years devastates the Horn of Africa – Copyright AFP Anatolii Stepanov
Medical data suggests that a good life expectancy in the African region has increased on average ten years per person between 2000 and 2019. This is according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This rise is greater than in any other region of the world during the same period. Life expectancy is a measure of premature death and it shows large differences in health across the world.
Despite the positive data, the report also notes that the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could threaten these huge gains.
The ‘Tracking Universal Health Coverage in the WHO African Region 2022’ report shows that healthy life expectancy (that is the number of years an individual is in a good state of health) increased to 56 years in 2019, compared to 46 in 2000. While still well below the global average of 64, over the same period global healthy life expectancy increased by only five years.
The reasons for this change are multifaceted, including improvements in the provision of essential health services, gains in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, as well as progress in the fight against infectious diseases due to the rapid scale-up of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria control measures from 2005, helped to extend healthy life expectancy.
On average, essential health service coverage improved to 46 percent in 2019, compared to 24 percent in 2000. The most significant achievements were in preventing and treating infectious diseases, but this was offset by the dramatic rise in hypertension, diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases and the lack of health services targeting these diseases.
Commenting on the trend, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa states: “The sharp rise in healthy life expectancy during the past two decades is a testament to the region’s drive for improved health and well-being of the population. At its core, it means that more people are living healthier, longer lives, with fewer threats of infectious diseases and with better access to care and disease prevention services.”
However, it stands that progress in healthy life expectancy could also be undermined by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic unless robust catch-up plans are instituted. On average, African countries reported greater disruptions across essential services compared with other regions. More than 90 percent of the 36 countries responding to a 2021 WHO survey reported one or more disruption to essential health services, with immunization, neglected tropical diseases and nutrition services suffering higher disruptions.
It is also very important that governments to step up public health financing. Most governments in Africa fund less than 50 percent of their national health budgets, resulting in large funding gaps. Only Algeria, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Eswatini, Gabon, Seychelles and South Africa fund more than 50 percent of their national health budgets. Hence, further gains require government action.