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World shortage of health workers

10th April 2006

10042006_world_health.jpgThe World Health Organisation's (WHO) World Health Report 2006 indicated that four million health workers are needed to combat the "chronic shortage" around the world. It said that fifty-seven countries have a serious shortage of health workers, affecting children's jabs, pregnancy care and access to treatment.

Thirty-six of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has 11% of the world's population and 24% of the global burden of disease but only 3% of the world's health workers.

At least 1.3 billion people worldwide lack access to the most basic healthcare, often because there is no health worker. This burden is greatest in countries overwhelmed by poverty and disease where these health workers are needed most.

Life expectancies in the poorest countries are half of those in the richest nations says the WHO. The report sets out a 10-year plan to address the crisis and says that each country needs to improve the way in which it plans for, educates and employs its doctors, nurses and support staff.  There is clear evidence that having a higher ratio of health workers to people increases boosts infant, child and maternal survival says the WHO. Infectious diseases and complications of pregnancy and delivery cause at least 10 million deaths each year.

WHO Assistant Director-General, Dr Timothy Evans, said that not enough health workers are being trained or recruited where they are most needed. He also said that an increasing number of qualified professionals are migrating to better-paid jobs in richer countries, whether those countries wealthy industrialised nations or are near neighbours. The report has led to calls for Western countries to stop "poaching" healthcare staff from these countries. Health Minister Rosie Winterton said that "The UK is the only rich country to have a policy of not actively looking for healthcare workers in deprived countries to staff the NHS."

The WHO says health budgets should increase by at least US$10 per person per year in the 57 countries with severe shortages, to educate and pay for the four million health workers needed. It is calling for more direct investment in the training and support of health workers and is clear that national and international funding would be needed to achieve this goal. It says that meeting that target within 20 years is "ambitious but reasonable".

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