ABUJA, Nigeria — Africa has seen a decade of growth in its healthy life expectancy over the past decade, the World Health Organization’s office in Africa said Thursday, beating the global average and progress recorded in any other region over the same period.
Healthy life expectancy in the region “increased by nearly ten years to 56 years in 2019, compared with 46 years in 2000,” said Dr. Lindiwe Makubalo, Deputy Regional Director of WHO Africa, at an online briefing citing the new WHO report on the state of health in Africa.
The gain exceeded that of average global healthy life expectancy, which increased by five years over the same period, said Dr. Makubalo, attributing it to better basic health services, an improvement in health care, productive and maternal health, and health services to combat infectious diseases.
Despite the progress made, “certainly we still have work to do and seem ready to move in together,” said the WHO Africa official, warning that life expectancy in the African region is still below the global average of 64 years.
“Unless countries strengthen health systems and make greater investments in health systems development and implement effective catch-up plans, these gains in life expectancy could easily be lost,” she said, also warning that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing “major disruptions.” “Had” to basic health services in Africa compared to other regions may also impact estimates of the continent’s healthy life expectancy.
Health systems across the continent have been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by other disease outbreaks such as monkeypox, cholera and Lassa fever. Countries like Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, are struggling with as many as five of these outbreaks.
To improve health systems beyond pre-pandemic levels and achieve “quality, equitable and accessible services for all,” an important step would be to boost public health financing, said Dr. Makubalo, noting that only seven countries in the region fund more than half of their annual national health spending.
“Over the past 20 years, out-of-pocket spending has increased in about 15 countries,” the official continued on the health situation in Africa, urging nations to do more to improve access to essential health services.
A typical example of countries seeing massive increases is Botswana, where universal health insurance is “the cornerstone of our development and our response or approach to health care in the country,” according to Moses Kitele of the Botswana Ministry of Health.
“We have made some progress toward achieving UHC (universal health coverage), particularly in terms of minimizing financial hardship,” said Dr. Kitele responded to the briefing, citing a recent WHO-funded study showing that less than 1% of Botswana households are affected by catastrophic healthcare-related health expenditures.
A similar feat could be replicated in other parts of the continent, said Makubalo, WHO’s deputy regional director for Africa. The WHO report on the state of health in Africa, she said, “gives us an opportunity to reflect on where we are and what progress has been made.”
“We cannot be complacent; There is so much to do, especially in the post-COVID-19 era,” Makubalo said. “We must keep investment, keep effort, keep building and keep working together.”