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Africa requires massive funding to help stem health crisis, experts tell UN panel

Africa requires massive funding to help stem health crisis, experts tell UN panel

Addressing an expert panel at United Nations Headquarters in New York, a Harvard University professor today made an impassioned appeal for massive assistance to help Africa stem its current health crisis.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs made his plea during a panel discussion organized by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) on "the economics of health in Africa." The panel was convened as part of the build-up to ECOSOC's high-level segment, which will be held from 16 to 18 July. Moderator Sarbuland Khan of DESA explained that by contributing to the debate on an issue of such critical importance, the Council would help produce "fresh ideas and innovative solutions to long-standing problems."

In his remarks, Professor Sachs emphasized that Africa could not handle its health crisis alone. Offering an example of the continent's limited ability to cope, he noted that Rwanda has one doctor per 65,000 people. "We can't call that a health system," he said. "We have to call this a global tragedy of the first order that has not been addressed by the international community and cannot be addressed by Africa itself."

Decrying the present low levels of assistance, Professor Sachs noted that at the end of the 1990s, the bilateral and multilateral combined help for Africa's efforts to fight AIDS totalled only $70 million per year, or roughly $3 per HIV infected person.

Professor Sachs advocated the creation of a global fund for AIDS, one for malaria, one for TB and one for childhood diseases. He said the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) should take leading roles in operationalizing the funds.

Also addressing the panel, UNDP Associate Administrator Zephirin Diabre agreed that better health was key to unlocking Africa's development potential. Noting that Africa has the largest number of people with AIDS -- some 23 million out of a global total of 33 million -- he said, "the real tragedy is that these facts and figures are so well known to everybody."

Dr. Ebrahim Samba, WHO Regional Director for Africa, agreed with other panellists that outside assistance was critical. "With the needs facing us in Africa today, even if they were to increase the [domestic] budget many-fold, this would not be sufficient for us to turn the tide of the disease burden," he said.

Dr. Samba pointed to next week's African Summit on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Other Related Infectious Diseases, to be held in Abuja, Nigeria, as an example of a growing political will on the continent.

In Abuja, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to outline key priorities in the fight against AIDS when he addresses the Summit on 26 April. Over the past year, the Secretary-General has been meeting with government and private sector leaders to discuss how to boost the profile and urgency of international action on AIDS. After a 5 April meeting with the pharmaceutical industry in Amsterdam, he stated that encouraging the active participation of all partners in the fight against AIDS had become his personal priority.