Africa's failed health plan seen costing 40 mln lives

Jeremy Clarke | 21 Jan 2007
Reuters Foundation Alert Net
African governments' failure to deliver on a 2001 vow to spend 15 percent of budgets on health has cost the continent 40 million lives, activists including Nobel winners Desmond Tutu and Wangari Maathai said on Sunday.

"The governments are to blame of course, but nothing has been done about it because ordinary people have not demanded it," Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai said in a call to action.

"We can only get governments to honour their promises if they think their existence is threatened," she added on the sidelines of the World Social Forum, an annual meeting of global activists which Africa is hosting for the first time.

The activists called a meeting to publicise health needs ahead of the African Union (AU) summit in Ethiopia at the end of this month. An AU summit in Nigeria in 2001 pledged to allocate at least 15 percent of national budgets to healthcare.

But more than five years on, most of the AU's 53 member states, including those with the worst public health crises, have not even begun meeting this pledge, the activists said.

"It is very possible that our continent will die out before our eyes. This is no exaggeration," South Africa's retired archbishop Desmond Tutu said in an open letter to African heads-of-state delivered at the meeting.

"An estimated 40 million Africans have died from health-related conditions as a result of the Abuja commitment not being met. This surpasses the total deaths from all modern African and global conflicts including the two world wars."

Tutu added that "almost unbelievable annual death rates" could cost Africa another 120 million lives by 2015".

Malaria kills more than one million Africans a year, nearly 90 percent of the global total, the petition said. An estimated 4.8 million children under the age of five die annually, half from pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles and AIDS.

A petition to AU leaders said the number of lives lost annually to preventable and treatable problems was more than the populations of either Eritrea, Libya, Sierra Leone or Togo.

Maathai said responsibility does not just rest with governments, however, but also with ordinary Africans.

"We need to make enough people understand the little things they are doing in their own houses everyday that are undermining their health," she said.

The ubiquitous mountains of plastic bags in Africa's slums were a major health hazard as they collect water and become breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, she added.

Companies were producing too many, while people were failing to dispose of them properly, Maathai argued. "We have to say to the Kenyan government, we know you are more interested in elections this year, but we call on you to stop the production of these thin plastic bags that spread malaria."