Healthy Life Expectancy in Africa Grows by Nearly 10 Years

The Tracking Universal Health Coverage in the WHO African Region 2022 report released on Thursday shows healthy life expectancy or the number of years an individual is in a good state of health increased to 56 years in 2019, compared with 46 in 2000.
Healthy life expectancy among Africans living in mainly high and upper-middle-income countries on the continent has increased by almost 10 years, a World Health Organization (WHO) assessment reports.

The Tracking Universal Health Coverage in the WHO African Region 2022 report released on Thursday shows healthy life expectancy or the number of years an individual is in a good state of health increased to 56 years in 2019, compared with 46 in 2000.

While still well below the global average of 64, this rise is greater than in any other region of the world during the same period. Global healthy life expectancy increased by only five years.

The report shows that improvements in the provision of essential health services, gains in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, as well as progress in the fight against infectious diseases attributed to the rapid scale-up of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria control measures from 2000 helped to extend healthy life expectancy.

On average, essential health service coverage improved to 46 per cent in 2019, compared with 24 per cent in 2000. The most significant achievements were in preventing and treating infectious diseases, but this was offset by the dramatic rise in hypertension, diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases and the lack of health services targeting these diseases.

Commenting on the report, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Africa Regional Director said that the sharp rise in healthy life expectancy during the past two decades is a testament to the region’s drive for improved health and well-being of the population. 

"It means that more people are living healthier, longer lives, with fewer threats of infectious diseases and with better access to care and disease prevention services. She however warned that the progress shouldn't stall, adding that unless countries enhance measures against the threat of cancer and other non-communicable diseases, the health gains could be jeopardized.

She mentions that COVID-19 alone could undo some gains. On average, African countries reported greater disruptions across essential services compared with other regions.

More than 90 per cent of the 36 countries responding to a 2021 WHO survey reported one or more disruptions to essential health services, with immunization, neglected tropical diseases and nutrition services suffering higher disruptions.

“COVID-19 has shown how investing in health is critical to a country’s security. The better Africa can cope with pandemics and other health threats, the more our people and economies thrive. I urge governments to invest in health and be ready to tackle head on the next pathogen to come bearing down on us,” said Dr Moeti.     

One of the key measures to improve access to health services the WHO says is for governments to reduce catastrophic out-of-pocket expenditure by households. 

Health expenditure is considered not catastrophic when families spend less than 10 per cent of their income on health expenditure, irrespective of their poverty level. Over the past 20 years, out-of-pocket expenditure has stagnated or increased in 15 countries. 

The WHO report also analysed healthy life expectancy and health service coverage differences along country income level and geographic location. High and upper-middle-income countries tend to have better health service coverage and higher healthy life expectancy at birth than lower-income countries, with around 10 additional years of healthy life expectancy. 

The report recommends countries accelerate efforts to improve financial risk protection, rethink and repivot health service delivery with a focus on incorporating noncommunicable health services as part of essential health services, involving communities and engaging the private sector. It also recommends putting in place sub-national system monitoring systems so that countries are better able to capture early warning signs for health threats and system failures.