Photo courtesty Creative Commons
For those of us who have been impacted by the death of loved ones due to the negative health consequences of smoking, the recent announcement by Larry Merlo, the CEO of the U.S. pharmacy chain CVS, to stop selling tobacco products in the chain’s 7,600 stores, was a ray of hope and a step toward a future when public health concerns trump short-term profit motives.
This past week, I attended a couple of interesting seminars at the World Bank’s Human Development Forum on how some mineral-rich countries have been able to translate their newfound riches into sustained economic growth, improved living conditions, and better nutrition, health and education levels for their populations.
While participating in a study of HIV spending efficiency in South Africa, I met a young HIV-positive mother who had just received the joyful news that her new-born daughter was healthy and HIV-free. Wiping away tears of relief, she described the gratitude she felt for the antenatal clinic staff, who had helped start her on antiretroviral treatment (ART) and thanks to whom she now had the hope of a bright future for her daughter. This encounter was just one among many similar incidents during the study – and, as our preliminary data show, is representative of the positive impact of the Government’s strong commitment to bringing down rates of HIV.
South Africa has mounted one of the strongest responses to HIV in the world. Its most dramatic success has been the scale-up of ART since 2003, growing from almost nothing to the country’s largest health program that treated about 1.5 million people in 2011 (out of a total HIV-infected population of 5.6 million).
The impacts of this treatment drive are already showing, with overall mortality, maternal and infant deaths all on a downward trend following their HIV-related peaks in the early-to mid-2000s. However, the cost of sustaining this success is huge: South Africa has committed to putting an estimated target of almost 10% of the entire population on a life-long course of expensive drug treatment. And, even with government negotiators bringing down ART drug prices by 65% since 2008, successful testing campaigns coupled with the worrying increase in resistance to first-line therapies look set to further raise the financial risk.
These challenges extend beyond South Africa. An analysis of the fiscal dimensions of HIV/AIDS released by the World Bank earlier this year in a number of countries concluded that without significant additional investments in prevention starting now, the cost of treatment will rapidly become unaffordable for even the most cash-rich countries on the African continent.
In the late 1990s, an international consultant told me that a proposed electronic health information system in the Dominican Republic was “like Star Wars and will not work in this country.”
Our objective was to improve service delivery by virtually connecting health providers to share medical records with one another as patients moved from health centers to hospitals. We learned that this was much more than an overnight task, requiring a sustained medium-term effort by the government to get the system fully up and running.
In recent years, I’ve seen similar efforts realized in the Russian Federation, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Botswana. In two Russian regions, Chuvash Republic and Voronezh Oblast, for example, electronic records are helping coordinate the flow of clinical and financial information across the health systems as facilities, departments within hospitals, and health insurance agencies have been “virtually” connected through broadband networks. The electronic records are supporting clinical decision-making, facilitating performance measurement and pay-for-performance initiatives, and ultimately the continuity of care as patients move across the health system. Inter- and intra-regional medical consultations and distance learning activities are also being supported by telemedicine networks that connect specialized hospitals with general facilities.
It is common to hear officials from countries and international agencies talk about the multiple challenges that impede intersectoral work for health. The concern is valid: while ministries of health and related institutions are organized and funded to improve the “health” of the population, other ministries do not have such a mandate. In most cases, this has led to a certain paralysis characterized by lofty aspirations in the health sector about the potential benefits of intersectoral action, but with little collaboration and action involving other sectors.
The scaling up of voluntary medical male circumcision, particularly in high HIV prevalence settings, is a highly cost-effective intervention to fight the epidemic—randomized controlled trials have found a 60% protective effect against HIV for men who became circumcised.
But, the supply of this medical service is just one part of the picture. Without active involvement from individuals and communities to deal with social and cultural factors that influence service acceptability, the demand for this common surgical procedure will be low.
Indeed, on a recent visit to Botswana, a country with high HIV prevalence and low levels of male circumcision, my World Bank colleagues and I had a good discussion with the National HIV/AIDS Commission about ways to address the low uptake of voluntary, safe male circumcision services in spite of a well-funded program by the government. It was obvious to all that if the demand for, and uptake of, this service were not strengthened through creative mechanisms that foster acceptance, ownership, and active participation of individuals and community organizations, the program would not help control the spread of HIV through increased funding of facilities, equipment, and staff alone.
So, what do we need to do to ensure that need, demand, utilization, and supply of services are fully aligned to improve health conditions?
This year, on World Malaria Day, April 25, the global health community has reason to celebrate. Indeed, thanks to substantial investments from partners and countries over the last decade, the scorecard on malaria reports good news: a reduction of more than 50% in confirmed malaria cases or malaria admissions and deaths in recent years in at least 11 countries south of the Sahara, and in 32 endemic countries outside of Africa. Overall, the number of deaths due to malaria is estimated to have decreased from 985,000 in 2000 to 655,000 in 2010.
The fact that an estimated 1.1 million African children were saved from the deadly grip of malaria over the last decade is an extraordinary achievement. By the end of 2010, a total of 289 million insecticide-treated nets were delivered to sub-Saharan Africa, enough to cover 76% of the 765 million persons at risk.
Over the past 5 years, four countries were certified as having eliminated malaria: Morocco, Turkmenistan, the UAE and Armenia. In southern Africa, health ministers of eight countries -- Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe--have developed a regional strategy to progress towards E8 malaria elimination status.
We’re entering a phase where AIDS is moving from emergency crisis financing to sustainable development financing—which is a major challenge, but one that we’re continuing to tackle, with the goal of stronger national ownership and responsibility.
One of the Bank’s international mandates is to support countries to develop better national health plans and budgets. Today, the Bank released an important study, The Fiscal Dimension of HIV/AIDS in Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland, and Uganda, which is a part of this mandate. The study helps countries do the long-range planning that we so desperately need in HIV programs.
The Bank has a long-established partnership with ministries of finance and planning, and we understand country systems. We stand ready to help countries integrate HIV into their programs and plan for it in a sustainable way.
We’ve seen extraordinary progress in AIDS. Today, we have more antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV than every other virus in history combined. We’ve reduced treatment costs from tens of thousands of dollars to as little as $100. And we’ve expanded our understanding of effective HIV prevention, including the role of male circumcision and the important role that treatment can play in prevention under the right circumstances.
Many of us involved in HIV remember the days when 70% of beds in health facilities in Africa were occupied by people with AIDS. Our successes in treatment and prevention have removed this specter and have allowed health systems to focus on other important health priorities.