An inconvenient truth about WEFA, the economy and health

This article was written from home, as most residents of Abuja have been asked not to go to work to ensure the safe deliberation of WEFA attendees…

Everyone that matters in corporate Africa is in Abuja this week! As we have all heard by now, Nigeria’s GDP was rebased recently and this singular action elevated Nigeria to the position of Africa’s largest economy. The hosting of the 2014 World Economic Forum on Africa (WEFA) in Nigeria, underscores the important position Nigeria occupies in the community of nations. As the world gathers this week in Abuja, Nigeria’s sparkling capital city, to discuss economic issues, we have to be reminded that the new GDP status does not automatically translate into better lives for the poor. Most importantly, worsening poverty and health indices in the country continually undermine the new status.

Over the years, economic data revealed strong growth in Nigeria’s economy but poverty  has worsened, unemployment increased  and poor health indices continually limit Nigerians from achieving their full potential. Strong economic growth is of no consequence when just about 5% of Nigerians in a population of 170 million are covered by the National Health Insurance Scheme. Although the HIV prevalence rate is falling, there are significant unmet needs among people living with HIV, such as access to Anti-Retrovirals (ARV). Only 600,000 of the estimated 3 million Nigerians infected have access to the drugs required to keep them alive, and almost all are treated with  “donor” funds.

In Nigeria, it is estimated that about 59,000 women die annually due to pregnancy-related complications . These staggering statistics can be likened to an aircraft loaded with pregnant women crashing daily!! It is very disheartening that the most common reason these women die is because of excessive bleeding after giving birth. Most hospitals do not have blood transfusion services and women are often left to die while the medical team scrambles to get blood from other distant health facilities.

Children are not left out of this dismal situation. Thousands do not survive beyond their fifth birthday and are commonly killed by pneumonia and diarrhoea. Two affordable remedies will ensure children live beyond five years of age; amoxicillin suspension and oral rehydration solution plus zinc. Amoxicillin costs less than $4 while the ORS plus Zinc is less than $2. However, with the grinding poverty, most families cannot afford to purchase these drugs or are not even aware of their efficacy in treating pneumonia and diarrhoea respectively. Indeed it is a paradox that in Africa’s largest economy, thousands still die from preventable illnesses, do not have access to healthcare and live on less than $2 per day.  

The theme of the 2014 WEFA is Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs. The World Economic Forum on its website aptly identifies that “in the past, growth in Africa has been uneven, enjoyed by too few and neglecting too many”. We commend this realisation and urge the more than 1000 leaders attending the forum to consider the weakest members of our society as they deliberate. Health is a social justice issue and should be on the top of the agenda at the forum.

If health is wealth, a sick country cannot be said to be wealthy. We must improve access to quality healthcare, provide clean drinking water and access to sanitation for millions of Nigerians.

As we celebrate that the world is in Abuja, we remind ourselves again of Robert Kennedy’s words:

“For too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values to the mere accumulation of material things; measured by our gross domestic product (GDP) … 

Yet, GDP does not allow for the health of our children, or the quality of their education. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile. 

For us at Nigeria Health Watch – we will celebrate when we have the lowest maternal mortality, the lowest HIV burden, the best access to care, 99% vaccination coverage, and the longest life-expectancy. We will celebrate when Nigeria is a health tourism destination, when there are no strikes in the health sector, when no child has to die because they could not access life-saving drugs.  
Until such a time, we will stay home until our leaders return to base, so that we can return to work.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (, which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

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