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Africa's ailing health system

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University of Saskatchewan's Dr. Ronaldo Labonte apptly described the general sentiment of the G6B panel on health.

"The lack of effective health care is a public disease," he said. "Inadequately funded health systems are unable to deliver existing treatments like vaccines."

Labonte and the June 22, 2002 panel were primarily concerned with global health system funding, citing a disproportionately small foreign health aid contributions by G8 nations compared to Nordic countries.

"While the World Health Organization recommends annual expenditures on health care of at least $60 (U.S.) per person, the actual health expenditure per person in Africa ranges from $0.88 to $24 (U.S.). Excluding Russia, G8 nations average $2,500 (U.S.) per year, according to Labonte.

Labonte also blamed the migration of existing health care workers from developing countries to the west and inadequate health care infrastructure which leads to failing health systems.

"[Importing] 130,000 physicians to the U.S. in 2001 saved it $26 billion (U.S.) in training costs," Labonte estimated. "This is a hidden kind of epidemic."

However, that trend may have two causes.

"If there is a push factor like an inadequately funded or structured health system, they will leave."

Structural inadequacy in health systems also concerned Clementine Dehwe, a trade union representative from Zimbabwe.

"How do you deal with health when the health delivery system has collapsed?" she asked. "In Zimbabwe, we can't get basic health needs, let alone treatment."

Dehwe stated health conditions like AIDS affect almost everybody in Africa. Many individuals are either infected themselves or must care for someone who is. According to Dehwe, AIDS in particular is devastating primarily affecting the working age group, from 12 to 49.

"We thought HIV was a health issue, but right now we bury our members more than we treat them," she said. "How do you talk about development when you lose the skilled workers?"

Dr. James Orbinski from Medecins Sans Frontieres believed the best way to deliver health is by healing citizens directly.

"We as outsiders have an obligation to restore their autonomy so they can make their own decisions," he said.

Orbinski highlighted "neglected diseases" which rarely occur in industrialized nations. While research into diseases occurring globally is funded by pharmaceutical companies because of potential profit, drugs for conditions extinct in industrialized regions are often discontinued and research into new drugs does not occur.

Orbinski also called on the G8 leaders to honour previous commitments to fund medical aid to developing nations not-just for financial benefit, but for moral reasons.

"Charity is not the solution to this problem," he said. "There is a duty of states to ensure everyone has access to health care. Period.

"What we want is an unequivocable endorsement of the political meaning of the Doha Declaration. Canada and the U.S. are blocking key elements in that declaration and that is unacceptable.

"We need no more declarations or rhetoric words. We need clear, concrete action."

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