African doctors leave patients behind to find a better life

March 8th, 2008 - 9:39 am ICT by admin  

Kampala (Uganda), March 8 (DPA) Lydia Mungherela left her home country Uganda in 1986 as it was in the throes of war and the burgeoning of a new disease called AIDS - a time the East African nation needed her the most. The 49-year-old physician loved her country but she packed her bags and left anyway, turning her back on the thousands of people who had no access to a doctor, and hoping to find a new life in South Africa.

But it wasn’t the mounting deaths from a new insurgency in the north or the spread of AIDS that forced her from her home.

“There were no facilities in hospitals and doctors were getting paid peanuts,” she said. “You cannot compare the situation in Uganda to that in South Africa, The pay is very, very high and there are many Ugandan doctors there. Few want to return.”

Mungherela’s move depicts a worrying trend that has seen the number of doctors, nurses and other health workers in developing countries decrease to “alarming” levels. Many are poached by Western nations - a practice some experts have called a crime.

Mungherela returned to Uganda in 1997 after she fell ill and her husband died. She attended the first-ever conference this week to address the global health worker shortage.

Migration is seen as a major impediment to dealing with diseases and epidemics on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa bears 24 percent of the world’s disease burden but has only three percent of the world’s health workers to treat those affected.

Part of this shortage is attributed to doctors being wooed away by more competitive salaries and better working conditions and qualities of life. But the mass migration is often pegged on poaching.

“Rich countries should not undermine the health systems of poor countries by poaching their workers. The continued illicit recruitment of health workers by the developed countries should stop,” said South Africa’s health minister, Manto Tshabalala Msimang, at the conference in Kampala.

South Africa is plagued by the crisis, with its doctors fleeing to better pay in Europe and North America, but is also seen by some African health workers as a better-paying African country to work in.

The Global Health Workforce Alliance (GHWA), set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2006 to address the shortage, has drafted a series of recommendations at the forum to enable the retention of health practitioners in the developing world.

“We want a situation where health workers are available to everyone. Each country needs to increase its per capita expenditure on health and the rich countries would fill the gap,” said Francis Omaswa, GHWA’s executive director.

The organization has also drawn a plan for sub-Saharan Africa where it hopes that if national governments and international donors raise 3 billion annually for the health sector, the region would get the needed 1.5 million health workers by 2015.

The forum’s 1,000 delegates have come up with resolutions including calling upon governments to increase the salaries of health workers and urging donor countries and agencies to fund health services without conditions.

The WHO says that there is a critical shortage of health workers in 57 countries, 36 of them in Africa, which it says, is the worst hit continent, as it struggles to battle epidemics of AIDS, malaria and other fatal diseases.

The six-day forum that ends Friday was convened now because the statistics have simply become frightening, experts said.

The number of patients per physician in sub-Saharan Africa is set to jump from 9,000 to 26,000 between 2006 and 2012.

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