Disease and Health in Africa

Africa faces some very serious health problems. Africans on average face lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, and a greater risk of disease than people in most other parts of the world.

Many people in Africa suffer from preventable diseases which are rare or easily treated in the industrialized countries: diseases like cholera, diarrheal diseases, high cholesterol, malaria. Particularly hard hit by some of these diseases are Africa’s children, many of whom die before reaching 5 years of age.

HIV infection is a large and rapidly growing problem in sub-Saharan Africa (see the following page for more on this disease). According to the World Health Organization, nearly two thirds of all cases of HIV infection worldwide are in Africa.

Even as Africans struggle against existing diseases, new threats continue to emerge. Among the most troublesome of these are the hemorrhagic fevers, of which Ebola is the best known. Although they are the cause of very few infections at present, an outbreak of one of these highly infectious diseases could be disastrous.


The Causes of Africa’s Health Problems

There are, of course, numerous causes for the thousands of health problems which afflict people in different parts of Africa. But at the root of most disease is one simple cause: poverty.

The 1998 WHO World Health Report sums this up clearly:

Poverty is the main reason why babies are not vaccinated, why clean water and sanitation are not provided, why curative drugs and other treatments are unavailable, and why mothers die in childbirth. It is the underlying cause of reduced life expectancy, handicap, disability, and starvation. Poverty is a major contributor to mental illness, stress, suicide, family disintegration and substance abuse. Every year in the developing world 12.2 million children under five years die, most of them from causes which could be prevented for just a few US cents per child. They die largely because of world indifference, but most of all they die because they are poor.

Among the most important consequences of poverty in Africa are:

Contaminated water. Probably the single greatest cause of infectious disease in much of Africa is contaminated water. Cholera is often spread through the water supply, as are many of the diarrheal diseases which are particularly deadly to young children.

Poor nutrition. People who are inadequately nourished are at a much greater risk from disease than those who are properly fed.

Inadequate Health Care. Most Africans do not have easy or affordable access to health care. Without adequate care, diseases which might readily be cured go untreated, frequently resulting in death.

Poor Health Care Education. People are most easily infected when they are unaware of the practices which put them at risk. One of the clearest examples of this worldwide has been in the spread of HIV infection.