20 April 2013

East Africa: A Healthy Population is No Accident

The new Platform which was initiated with facilitation from the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) aims to harmonise policies and legislation related to health undertakings in the region.

The EAHP is expected to be an effective and vibrant platform where stakeholders can utilise the existing EAC dialogue channels to promote the health sector's competitiveness in trade, service delivery and investments throughout the region.

The launch was a culmination of year-long joint efforts by the East African Community (EAC), the East African Business Council (EABC), the East African Community Civil Society Forum (EACSOF), the East African Health Federation (EAHF), the Federation of East African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (FEAPM) and the Eastern Africa Network of AIDS Service Organizations (EANNASO). The EABC and EACSOF are the regional apex associations for the private sector and civil society respectively.

Needless to say, a healthy population is critical for regional integration. Integration in all other areas - trade, education, politics and so on - is predicated on the presumption that the people are healthy enough to engage in these activities. It is encouraging that leaders in the health sector have taken the initiative in this regard.

As the EAC Deputy Secretary General of the East African Community in charge of Productive and Social Sectors Jessica Eriyo aptly put it, "We need a healthy and productive population which enjoys quality and affordable health care within the region. This is not only in harmony with the EAC health strategy but also strategically aligned to the current East African Development Strategy."

She went further to point out how important the initiative was for the realisation of the regional integration agenda. "This is an excellent avenue in which both the private sector and civil society can articulate common issues hindering access to affordable health care and advocate for measures that can be undertaken to improve the same."

The private sector and civil society, she underlined, played a crucial role in supplementing government efforts in filling the gaps in the EA healthcare industry.

Sensitisation campaigns are particularly important when we consider that up to 70 per cent of the diseases afflicting East African citizens are preventable. But as was pointed out by the chairman of the new Platform, Dr Amit Thakker, many people in the region were still suffering from these preventable diseases. It is particularly unconscionable "even disgraceful" that 24 per cent of global diseases exist in Sub-Saharan Africa, including East Africa.

The Abuja Declaration urged African governments to inject 15 per cent of national budgets into the health sector, a goal that remains a pipedream. "Every two hours in East Africa, a mother dies because of complications while giving birth and every 20 minutes, a baby dies," Dr Thakker reminded delegates in Kigali.

This is not to say that regional governments have not done anything. Government hospitals and health facilities are to be found across the region, many of them providing highly subsidised services to extremely poor and vulnerable populations. Still, these efforts are hardly sufficient.

It is in recognition of the severe poverty afflicting the common man that Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta said at his inauguration that his government intends to abolish maternity fees in public hospitals within the first 100 days of his administration. The Jubilee Coalition government further wants to make health care free of charge in government health centres and dispensaries.

Such bold initiatives are sorely needed not just in Kenya but throughout East Africa. One way of bridging the gap between the rich and the poor is through provision of such social services to all citizens for free or at a token fee that all can afford. Moreover, this will ensure that every citizen is in physically fit to contribute to national and regional development efforts.

The Platform launched in Kigali offers the initial seed of hope in meeting the health care needs of our people. It is an initiative that needs to be lauded and supported by governments, the private sector, donor agencies and all other players who have a stake in the provision of affordable health services in East Africa. Never again should health matters be relegated the periphery in our national and regional priorities.

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