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Improving Healthcare in Africa

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Economic trends are looking up in Africa. The region is forecasted to achieve the fastest growth in the world over the next ten years. Improving health will be a key driver to Africa realizing this potential. Healthcare in Africa has already changed dramatically over the last decade, and is set to shift even more in the coming one. Infectious and parasitic diseases remain the leading cause of death, but non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer are on the rise.

Today, life expectancy in Africa is just 53 years. HIV among adults is nearly nine times the global average. A child dies of malaria, a preventable and treatable disease, every 60 seconds. These are daunting facts. On top of this, the burden of non-communicable diseases is increasing, with expectations for a doubling of diabetes and more than a million new cancer cases every year. And today there is limited ability to diagnose and treat these conditions.

Novel thinking that is rooted in African culture, societal changes and the use of new technologies is essential to bettering health outcomes in Africa. This has to be underpinned by collaboration with governments, NGOs, commercial enterprises, and local community leaders. Progress is possible. Africa already has made impressive gains in the communications sector, skipping the stage of building a network of landlines and telephone wires, and instead building an impressive number of cell phone towers. Africa is now the world's fastest-growing mobile market, growing almost 20% each year and is likely to reach 735 million subscribers this year. It now has the opportunity to repeat this with its healthcare industry.

We can learn from what has been successful in healthcare and other industries. Our approach is to strive for a sustainable model that includes corporate citizenship activities, while at the same time encourages entrepreneurship. Rural India faces similar challenges as Africa. Patients desperately need to be educated about disease prevention and management, doctors have little formal medical training and pharmacies are often poorly stocked. A creative approach is the only way to tackle such challenges. In India, Novartis works with local villagers and health workers, giving them the tools to lead information sessions on topics such as preventative health and nutrition. These villagers are trusted in their local communities and can best help spread awareness and adapt materials to meet local needs, overcoming logistical barriers.

Thinking differently will be key to success. I see four factors that will be fundamental to enhancing healthcare in Africa:

Access to high quality, affordable medicines - In Africa more than half the population lives on less than USD 1 a day. Governments on average only invest 6.5% of GDP in healthcare. The proper healthcare solutions will include high-quality, low-cost generics, over the counter medicines, vaccines and innovative therapies. However, these solutions need to reach a large rural population spread over vast geographic area. These places are often difficult to travel to, with poor roads and limited storage facilities. This can lead to stock outs in many rural areas. Therefore, adequate infrastructure is also needed to ensure the medicines that patients need are readily available.

Implementing simple technologies to improve care - We have learned a great deal about how simple technologies can be used to improve healthcare for African patients. A great example is our "SMS for Life" program that we developed with several partners. Health workers use text messages to monitor inventory of anti-malaria medications, as well as other critical drugs, helping to reduce stock outs in rural healthcare clinics in three African countries. Our program targeted villagers that were connected only by unpaved roads, far from hospitals. Another example is our work to establish teleconsultation centers in remote villages using mobile technology. Local health workers use closed-network mobile phones to speak with hospital staff to make treatment decisions. We've also used mobile technology to capture assessment data, to help health authorities identify gaps in service and better allocate resources. These efforts have saved lives and lowered costs, while also reducing time waiting for treatment.

Developing sustainable, long-term solutions - Efforts in Africa need to be sustainable to really make a difference. Programs that help to train physicians and other healthcare workers are essential. Africa is home to one-seventh of the world's population and one-quarter of its disease burden, but only 2% of its doctors. In some places, more than 10,000 people rely on just two doctors. The number of nurses and midwives is equally sparse. Efforts to train healthcare workers at the local level are needed, and working in rural areas will be critical to success. At Novartis, we're helping sponsor a variety of trainings, including supporting training centers for health workers and developing e-learning tools for diagnosing and treating common childhood illnesses.

Fostering solutions collaboratively - There are many stakeholders striving to improve healthcare in the African region. This includes national and local government authorities, NGOs and multinationals who employ large numbers of workers. The details of an effective disease prevention and management plan are so complex, it is difficult for any one party to make a difference alone. In order to effect real change, solutions must be developed and implemented collaboratively. That's why Novartis is working with the creative thinkers at TED this week to find new ways to help. We hope you'll join the conversation on Facebook.

Progress is possible. We've seen that with infectious diseases like malaria. Since 2001, together with our partners, Novartis has distributed more than 500 million doses of our anti-malarial treatment, without profit. This has helped save more than one million lives, including many children under the age of five. According to estimates from the World Health Organization, the number of malaria cases worldwide decreased by more than 40% between 2004 and 2009, and malaria deaths decreased 22% during that same period.

With change come great opportunities. If we dedicate our best thinking and expertise, use emerging technologies, and adapt to the local conditions in a true partnership, together we can make a difference in Africa.