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World Health Day highlights need for better health care in developing countries

April 7th is designated as World Health Day each year by the World Health Organization (WHO) to commemorate that agency’s founding. In conjunction with this, WHO annually highlights a theme that has a significant global health impact and often focuses on issues – such as access to clean water – that are particularly relevant to the developing world. This year, the theme of World Health Day is high blood pressure, or hypertension, which is well known to people in developing countries, but which is actually even more common throughout much of the developed world.

According to WHO, between one quarter and one third of adults globally has hypertension, but prevalence varies significantly by geographic region, income status and gender. The prevalence of hypertension is highest in Africa, and is also common in Southeast Asia. As this data from World Health Statistics 2012 shows, high-income countries actually have the lowest rates of hypertension.

  Men Women
Global 29.2% 24.8%
Africa 38.1% 35.5%
Southeast Asia 25.4% 24.2%
Low income 32.9% 29.9%
Lower middle income 28.7% 26.0%
Upper middle income 35.3% 28.3%
High income 24.8% 17.4%

While both lifestyle and genetics play a role in high blood pressure, the ability to treat the condition is necessarily challenged by existing living conditions and the availability of economic resources to provide a robust health care system.

For example, in the two regions with the highest rates of high blood pressure, Africa and Southeast Asia, life expectancy rates for men and women are among the lowest in the world. Gross national income (GNI) per capita is also the lowest in these regions. Adding to their healthcare challenge, total expenditure on health as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is lowest in Africa (tied with the Western Pacific) and Southeast Asia, according to this data from World Health Statistics 2012:

  Africa Southeast Asia
Life expectancy (male/female) 52/56 64/67
Annual per capital income (PPP int. $) 2437.00 3608.00
Total expenditure on Health as a % of GDP 6.5% 3.8%

In contrast, health expenditure as a percentage of GDP in the European region is 9.3%.

These statistics highlight the need to help improve the health care systems in developing countries and emerging markets. OPIC is working to help improve the health and well-being of people in the Africa and Southeast Asia regions in several ways. For example, OPIC has provided U.S. government financing of over $10 million, along with private foundations such as the Calvert Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to the Medical Credit Fund (MCF), a non-profit health investment fund that supports private healthcare facilities in Africa in obtaining capital to strengthen and upgrade their operations in order to enhance access to affordable, quality healthcare. The initial implementation of this fund will focus on Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

If successful, MCF will expand to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  “Involving the private sector more fully in Africa’s health care is the best way to expand access to greater numbers of people – and that’s what the MCF has shown it can do,” OPIC President and CEO Elizabeth Littlefield said inannouncing the financing. “This new financing will empower smaller providers to scale up much-needed services, improve clinical standards and thereby efficiency.”

In India, OPIC’s $3.5 million loan to Healthpoint Services Global India Ltd., an affiliate of the U.S. company Healthpoint Global Services Inc., is supporting the construction of small water treatment facilities to some 400 communities in India’s Punjab state that have limited access to safe drinking water. These treatment facilities will purify groundwater and then sell the treated water to local residents at an affordable rate. This benefits the community by helping to prevent waterborne diseases and other illnesses, and has the added benefit of creating local jobs and training for those workers. National Public Radio featured Healthpoint in this story about getting clean drinking water in rural India.

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