Accelerating key health gains in Africa

Canada has a role to play under the new global Sustainable Development Goals

Published: Wednesday, 09/23/2015

Dr. Githinji Gitahi, global CEO, Amref Health AfricaBy Dr. Githinji Gitahi
Global CEO, Amref Health Africa



World leaders are meeting in New York later this week to close the door on the Millennium Development Goals and open another on the Sustainable Development Goals. What lessons do we take with us as we launch these global goals? And, where do we need to accelerate action?

The Millennium Development Goals campaign has shown how we can pull the world together for a common objective to ensure widespread gains against poverty and disease. But, it has also highlighted long-standing challenges in some parts of the developing world where gains have been slow and health indicators, in particular, are significantly below the global targets set in 2000.

On infectious diseases, significant and laudable reduction in new HIV infections has been achieved during the MDG era. However, sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for more than 70 per cent of all new HIV infections, and AIDS-related deaths remain the number one killer of adolescents aged 10 to 19. Access to knowledge, testing and medicines for young people must be a key focus in the post-MDG era.

Africa additionally faces an emerging and rapidly growing health burden from non-communicable diseases. While infectious diseases currently top the list of leading causes of death, it is estimated that this trend will change in the next decade with hypertension, diabetes, chronic pulmonary disease and cancers leading the way. But, the growing need to tackle non-communicable diseases in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be met by lessening our investment in fighting deadly infectious diseases, such as malaria, measles, TB and HIV.

HIV testing

It’s clear the massive gains in health over the past 15 years have been due largely to an increase in international financing along with strengthened political commitment and an expanding global economy, especially in Africa and Asia. To maintain and improve gains made, we must ensure sustained political commitment, predictable financing and strategic investments in health systems, disease surveillance and new tools.

Canada, in particular, has a role to play here as it continues to be a leader in global discussions to find innovative ways to finance sustainable global development. Indeed, Canada’s focus on blended finance in recent years has led the global conversation in financing for development.

At the same time, accountability, efficiency, value for money, and transparent tracking of health expenditure must become standard principles in the use of health care resources by African governments and non-governmental stakeholders alike.

Recognizing the particular health challenges faced by women, babies and children in sub-Saharan Africa and advocating globally for increased investment in this area is a vital role Canada must continue to play. The sad reality is that the global goals set in 2000 for improving the health of women and children have not been met by most countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sure, significant progress has been made, but at a much slower rate than the other global development goals. In 2013, 179,000 African women died in pregnancy or childbirth, 56 per cent of all maternal deaths worldwide. Canada’s continuing commitment to mother and child health, and its focus on bringing more global support on board, can help to drastically reduce that number as the Sustainable Development Goals roll out.

Non-profit organizations like Amref Health Africa are not off the hook, either, as the world seeks to improve upon the global Millennium Development goals.  We must ensure we are bringing innovative solutions to Africa’s health challenges to the table, particularly when it comes to delivering care to communities and training health workers. And, we must advocate with the key stakeholders to focus attention continuously on translation of evidence to investment decisions for sustainable health systems in Africa.

Githinji Gitahi, a medical doctor and businessman, is the global CEO of Amref Health Africa. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Amref Health Africa is a humanitarian organization providing training and health services in more than 30 African countries.