Community health worker Mariam Traoré spends her days going door to door in Yirimadio, just outside Bamako, Mali, treating her neighbors for everything from malaria to diarrhea and even providing immunizations. On days when she can’t visit, some patients come to her.
Traoré belongs to the network of community health care workers serving on the frontlines of Africa’s health care system. Like her fellow community health care workers, Traoré is overstretched and needs support.
The World Health Organization estimates Africa needs 2 million community health workers to meet the demands of its rapidly growing population. A shortage of community health care workers is just one part of Africa’s medical shortfalls. On average, the continent has about 1 doctor for every 3,000 patients, about one-third the ratio the World Health Organization recommends. It also has about one-third of the 6,000 epidemiologists the population needs, according to experts.
“If we really want to be prepared for the next pandemic, we really need to expand that,” Dr. John Nkengasong, former director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a news briefing.
To confront Africa’s shortage of health workers, the African Union launched the Health Workforce Task Team with the goal of rapidly expanding the ranks of medical personnel. The unprecedented effort seeks to attract billions of dollars in funding to train thousands of new health care workers and help Africa close the gap.
The team has a lot of work ahead of it. Sub-Saharan Africa has about 145,000 doctors for a population of 821 million — a ratio of 18 doctors per 100,000 residents, according to a study by researchers at George Washington University.
“A health system is not a health system without health workers. But Africa has remained short-changed on the numbers, the training, the skills training, the availablity of health workers across the continent,” said Dr. Githinji Gitahi, CEO of Amref Health Africa in a video in April 2022. “This must be addressed if we are going to be ready for universal health coverage and also ready for the next pandemic.”
The WHO estimates that Africa needs more than 1 million doctors to meet international standards.