Diseases deal massive blow to productivity in Africa

Community members get tested for sicknesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes
Community members get tested for conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Copyright: GovernmentZA/CC BY-ND 2.0

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  • Report says diseases lead to US$2.4 trillion annual loss of GDP in Africa
  • Noncommunicable diseases contribute most to the losses
  • African governments 'must invest more in universal health coverage'

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[NAIROBI] If Africa hopes to reverse the continent’s massive annual loss of productivity due to diseases, it needs to urgently improve efficiency in health spending, an economist says.
According to a new WHO Regional Office for Africa report, based on data from 47 countries, Africa loses about US$2.4 trillion of the region’s total value of goods produced and services provided annually because of diseases that afflict people in these nations.

“Noncommunicable diseases are the largest cause of productivity losses in the African region,” says the report. “Approximately 47 per cent of the total productivity cost of illness could be avoided (or spared) in 2030 if the SDG targets related to those health conditions are fully achieved.”

“It is not just about more money for the health we need. It is also about more health for the money we need.”

Grace Kabaniha, WHO Regional Office for Africa

Grace Kabaniha, a health economist with the WHO Regional Office for Africa, says spending on people’s medical wellbeing is a necessity for Africa since it is an investment with huge returns for the region.

“It is not just about more money for the health we need,” Kabaniha told SciDev.Net. “It is also about more health for the money we need. It is, therefore, important to improve efficiency in health spending. Achieving universal healthcare is good for the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The WHO report, which resulted from analysis of the WHO and International Monetary Fund databases for the year 2015, was launched at the second WHO Africa Health Forum in Cape Verde last month (26–28 March).

“The researchers used a human capital approach to estimating the losses by attaching a monetary value in terms of lost labour productivity because someone is sick or dies before their time. The estimate for ill-health was based on an approach developed in the 1990’s, to estimate the quality adjusted health loss,” said Kabaniha.

The broad objective was to make the case for commitment to investment and implementation of SDG 3, to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all.

Kabaniha explains that noncommunicable diseases including diabetes and hypertension account for 37 per cent of the burden of disease. She attributes this to a marked reduction of infectious diseases since 2000 due to global investment in HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, the largest drivers of illness and premature death.

To address the problem, says Kabaniha, authorities must implement people-centred health services with a focus on a primary health care approach, which is the most cost-effective, effective and affordable approach for improving health service access, quality and equity in Africa.

According to the report, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania together contributed to almost 50 per cent of the total years lost in healthy life in the WHO Africa region.

Joseph Wang'ombe, a professor of health economics at Kenya’s University of Nairobi, says the report is a clear wake-up call to African policymakers to quickly implement interventions such as capacity building and infrastructure developments to address the massive annual loss in productivity due to diseases.

“One of the biggest bottlenecks of Africa’s development is disease,” he tells SciDev.Net, adding that sickness has serious adverse impacts on productivity.

Wang’ombe adds that policymakers need to increase expenditure on preventive health services. It is also important for them to work closely with monitoring and evaluation experts to gauge the possible outcomes of interventions as well as making clear choices for effective, affordable and accessible healthcare provision to the people.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.