I live in a US town of around 80,000 people. Access to healthcare has never been a major issue here. We have 30 pediatricians serving the 15,000 youth in the area. On the other hand, in the small African nation of Lesotho, there are only six pediatricians to care for the country’s 800,000 children. HIV/AIDS has been declared a national emergency in the country: one in four people have contracted the virus. Why are physicians in such short supply in a nation with such a dire need for healthcare?
Lesotho is yet another victim of an expanding skills drain in Sub-Saharan Africa. Promising students often leave the country and once educated, flee to surrounding nations to work in a more stable, higher-paying environment. A similar situation plagues other Sub-Saharan African countries such as Ghana, where in 2000, over 500 medical professionals left the country, while less than half of that number were trained the same year. It is estimated that a mere 3% of the world’s physicians are being overwhelmed by 24% of the planet’s sick in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the wake of this extended skills drain, the World Health Organization has speculated that the region faces a shortage of nearly 800,000 trained physicians, accompanied by a shortage of 1.5 million general trained health staff.
It is not as if the international community has not offered assistance. Numerous NGOs have sent medical staff and professionals for stints of time. However, nothing permanent seems to work when addressing Lesotho’s healthcare policies. The country’s healthcare clinics are overcrowded with families in need of care. When Canadian NGOs arrived at a clinic in the city of Leribe, there were two healthcare professionals – one HIV positive – to serve the entire city. Unfortunately, this tale is all too familiar in cities and villages throughout the country.
Although the need is dire in Lesotho, several organizations have found some success. The Baylor College of Medicine in Texas has been able to run a successful pediatric clinic in the poverty-stricken nation. In a region where only about 600 HIV-positive children were receiving anti-retroviral drugs, now over 1,000 are receiving treatment. Several other clinics have offered marginal success in fighting the AIDS pandemic. Yet the main issue in Lesotho is not that this shortage of medical professionals isn’t being grappled with, it is that substantial assistance has yet to arrive. Lesotho is surely thankful for the 1,000 youngsters now receiving the care they desperately need, but what about the other 17,000 HIV-positive children in the country?
The lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs are available to many of these children, but there are not enough trained physicians or pediatricians capable of administering the drugs. Furthermore, Lesotho and its neighbors’ concerns with weak healthcare infrastructures have almost completely prevented some governments from importing anti-retroviral drugs to treat infected citizens. Such issues arise from outdated equipment, lack of storage facilities, little or no budget, and the religious attitudes that cause infected people to seek less conventional (and less effective) forms of medicines.
Many believe that before more physicians are trained or sent into the region, governments must reform their own healthcare policies to foster the use of anti-retroviral drugs. However, the health status of Lesotho’s youth seems directly proportional to that of the waning national economy. Because the number of diseased children and young adults is still massive, the amount of people receiving education and work is in constant peril. This lack of health infrastructure fosters disease, which then hurts the economy and finally prevents the government from bringing about reform in its own healthcare system. While the Lesotho government and foreign organizations are attempting to find solutions, children are still dying.
These children are faced with a constant barrage of disease and malnutrition, yet little is done to mend the country’s fragile health infrastructure or the lack of trained medical staff. The country is in turmoil, and if growing trends continue, Lesotho and its colossal fight against HIV/AIDS may never be won.
Smith, Melinda. "Africa, Parts of Asia, Face Critical Medical Shortages." Voice of America 6 Sept. 2007. 10 Sept. 2007 http://www.voanews.com/english/2007-09-06-voa62.cfm.
Snow, Kate. "Lesotho’s Crisis: 6 Doctors — 800,000 Kids." ABC News 3 Sept. 2007. 5 Sept. 2007 http://abcnews.go.com/WN/GlobalHealth/story?id=3553436&page=1 .
Spurgaitis, Kevin. "Place of hope’: Canadian health professionals support people living with HIV/AIDS in Lesotho." Catholic New Times 30.6 (April 9, 2006): 6(1). General OneFile. Gale. Kansas State Library. 4 Sept. 2007 http://find.galegroup.com/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS.
What you can do:
The Baylor College of Medicine has had substantial success in providing healthcare to the children of Lesotho through the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative(http://bayloraids.org/), and can continue to prosper under donations (http://bayloraids.org/donate.shtml).
The William J. Clinton Foundation works in Lesotho in cooperation with Baylor and the International AIDS Initiative, along with several other charitable works (http://www.clintonfoundation.org/cf-pgm-hs-ai-home.htm).
Experienced medical staff can also apply to join the BIPAI Pediatric AIDS Corps team and serve as a physician in Lesotho, among a number of other African countries (http://bayloraids.org/corps/).
UNICEF’s 2006 brief analysis of the situation and needs in Lesotho (http://www.unicef.org/arabic/har07/files/countrychap_Lesotho.pdf).
UNICEF’s 2006 comprehensive report provides detailed accounts and explanations behind the plights of children throughout the world, including the lack of medical staff in African countries such as Lesotho. (http://www.unicef.org/sowc06/pdfs/sowc06_fullreport.pdf)
The World Health Organization’s 2006 fact sheet regarding mortality in Lesotho (http://www.who.int/whosis/mort/profiles/mort_afro_lso_lesotho.pdf).
Photo Credit: WHO/UNAIDS/P. Virot