A wake-up call: lessons from Ebola for the world’s health systems

A baby waits to be seen at a health centre in northern Rwanda
A baby waits to be seen at a health centre in northern Rwanda

We all know the dreadful toll that Ebola has taken in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is not over.

A conference today in Brussels is trying to maintain international support for the job of reaching zero cases and helping these countries to recover.

Save the Children has been on the frontline of efforts to tackle the crisis, helping to fight Ebola in all three countries. As these efforts continue, we must also learn some lessons which apply to all countries.

Dangerous

The reasons for Ebola spreading are complex but a new report we launch today – A Wake-Up Call – focuses on the way that the inadequate health services in the countries ensured that Ebola could not be quickly contained, reversed or mitigated.

Dangerously under-funded, understaffed, poorly-equipped and fragmented health services were quickly overwhelmed and needed massive international help to start to fight back. Donors have had to play a vital role, especially the UK in Sierra Leone, the USA in Liberia and France in Guinea.

No secret

However, the poor state of the health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea was never a secret, nor were the extremely low amounts they were able to spend on health.

Although they had made progress in recent years, Sierra Leone’s government was still spending just $16 per person in 2012 instead of the $86 recommended.

Liberia had only 51 doctors in the whole country.

Wider crisis

In our report, we have created a new Health Access Index which shows that the three countries are far from alone in having weak health systems. We have ranked the countries with the highest levels of child mortality according to:

  • spending on health
  • number of health workers
  • coverage of key health services
  • mortality rates.

The index shows that many countries have health services equally bad or worse than those in the three countries. In fact, 28 countries come below Liberia.

Millions at risk

The Ebola crisis must be a wake-up call to all of us to take serious action to transform the health services of all developing countries.

Not doing so is causing unnecessary deaths and suffering every day, but also risking future infectious disease outbreaks that, in our interconnected world, have the potential to lead to pandemics.

Researchers at the University of Washington have calculated that a new influenza outbreak on the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu crisis could kill up to 81 million people worldwide.

2015 is an important opportunity to try to change this, through the push for universal health coverage.

Within our means

Some say that ensuring universal access to essential health services is unaffordable, but our evidence paints a different picture.

While reforms of health services and addressing inefficiencies and corruption are badly needed, a large part of the $101 billion annual gap in health spending could be filled if governments raise greater domestic resources.

They can do this by improving their tax systems, allocating more of their available funds to health and reduce illicit financial flows and tax avoidance.

The international community, including the International Monetary Fund, needs to enable these governments to increase spending but must also continue to provide aid to help fill gaps, making sure this helps to build comprehensive health services.

The gap in funding for comprehensive health services reveals that prevention is better than cure. For the three Ebola-affected countries, the gap in 2012 was $1.58 billion, only a third of the $4.3 billion that international help to fight Ebola has pledged so far.

Threat to progress

As well as preventing infectious disease outbreaks, lack of access to essential health services causes a daily burden of death and disease including high rates of maternal, newborn and child mortality.

While we have had great success in halving the number of under-five deaths since 1990, further progress is not assured.

Rates of newborn mortality are not falling fast enough and the fall in child mortality has been far from equal with children from the poorest households and regions being left behind. Only 16 of the 75 priority countries have demonstrated sufficient progress among their poorest and most marginalised populations.

Change

The Ebola crisis is an opportunity to see that we cannot leave the world’s poorest countries with dangerously inadequate health services.

The Sustainable Development Goals can commit to an historic shift to end all preventable child deaths, reduce inequalities and ensure universal health coverage for the poorest people in the world.

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