From: Reuters
Published April 3, 2008 07:55 PM

Africa must make health spending a priority: group

By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Africa must make higher health spending a priority if it is to stop rich nations poaching medical staff and cut deaths from the continent's five biggest killers, an African health campaign group said.

Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, child and maternal mortality kill 8 million Africans every year -- more than the combined populations of Sierra Leone and Botswana -- the African Public Health Rights Alliance said.

"Do you want people to be alive to enjoy the roads, the houses, the power supply or do you want to build them when the people are dead?" Rotimi Sankore, coordinator of the advocacy group, asked in a Reuters interview on Thursday.

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"You have to invest in health workers and professionals. If you don't, the more developed countries will poach them and subsidize their own economies using our health workers."

Africans can on average expect to remain healthy for 36 years of their life, compared to 67 years in developed countries, Sankore said.

But Cuba enjoys the same life expectancy as rich countries because it invests heavily in its health system, he said.

Whereas Cuba had 67,000 doctors for its 12 million people, African countries with about the same population size were doing much worse. He gave the examples of Malawi with about 300 doctors, Zambia with 900 and Zimbabwe with just above 2,000.

As matters stood now, health spending should be an absolute priority, he said: "Otherwise investment in others is superfluous because everybody would have died out."

HEALTH SPENDING

African countries also had to work together to fight diseases, he said, adding that nine of the 10 countries with the highest TB and HIV infection rates globally were in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

Sankore was speaking after an African finance ministers' meeting where his group urged countries to meet their goal of spending at least 15 percent of national budgets on health.

Botswana has allocated 23 percent in its spending plan to health care, while Mauritius and Seychelles had more or less met the recommended 15 percent, Sankore said. All other African countries were allocating only 3 to 9 percent.

He added that rich nations compensating the continent for the health workers they poached is not the solution.

The United States, for an example, had 250,000 health workers and professionals that were not born or trained there, which saved its economy $20 billion in training costs.

"Giving back $20 billion to the developing world is not enough because apart from the money lost in training those people, we are also losing lives."

"And in addition, those health professionals live there and contribute to that economy," he said.

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