Long list of serious diseases

Many diseases are regularly found (or endemic) in Africa and often prove fatal when they're not treated quickly and efficiently.

The scourge of AIDS

Campaigning against AIDS in Africa

The continent of Africa has been hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2010, around 68% of all people living with HIV were residents of sub-Saharan Africa (UNAIDS), though the region accounts for just 12% of the global population. With wider access to anti-retroviral treatment, incidence rates of HIV/AIDS are falling. Nevertheless, AIDS still claims around one million lives each year in sub-Saharan Africa.


Some of these diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, are found elsewhere. Others, such as sleeping sickness, are specific to Africa.

Inoculations, vaccinations and other means of prevention are available. For example, insecticide-treated nets help people avoid the fly bites which lead to infections such as malaria. But the lack of easy access to health clinics and the costs of certain treatments or prevention methods can put help out of the reach of many families.

Malaria is widespread and kills one African child every 30 seconds. It is the leading cause of death among under-fives in many countries. Bilharzia (also known as Schistosomiasis) is another common illness, caused by parasites which live and breed in some freshwater snails. Lassa Fever, found particularly in West Africa, is highly contagious and can cause severe or fatal illness.

Malaria is widespread and kills one African child every 30 seconds. It is the leading cause of death among under-fives in many countries.

Polio, now eradicated from many parts of the world, is still endemic in Nigeria and outbreaks also occur in other African countries. Once contracted, it is incurable and can cause permanent paralysis.

Other common diseases include:

  • elephantiasis, which causes an accumulation of fluid, usually in a limb,
  • leprosy, which causes disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage,
  • helminthiasis, an infestation of parasitic worms in the intestines, and
  • trachoma, a bacterial eye infection which can lead to blindness.

If neglected, most diseases will cause severe debilitation which limits the sufferer’s ability to earn a living. Early diagnosis and cures are available, but diseases continue to disable and claim the lives of many.

Varying standards of healthcare

  • Doctor checking the health of a baby in Uganda
  • Providing medical care to families in Ethiopia

Healthcare in Africa differs widely, depending on the country and also the region – those living in urban areas are more likely to receive better healthcare services than those in rural or remote regions.

Many communities lack clean water and proper sanitation facilities, particularly in rural areas. This means that illnesses caused by poor hygiene, such as cholera and diarrhoea, are common in some countries.

Spending on healthcare

At a 2001 African Union (AU) meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, African countries agreed to allocate 15% of their budgets to healthcare. To date, only six countries (Botswana, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda and Zambia) have met this commitment.

Health experts now believe that even if the target is reached, 15% of a small budget is not sufficient to make major inroads into poor health. Four of the six countries allocating 15% of their budget still only spend 14 dollars per capita on health.

With some countries investing as little as 1-4 dollars per capita, overseas aid is a major source of funding for healthcare. While essential, it can bring its own problems:

  • high costs of co-ordinating different donors and reporting separately to each (at one point, Tanzania was producing about 10,000 reports annually)
  • decision-making may be switched from the country’s local officials who know what's most needed, to donor governments and organisations.
  • Man and son waiting in a medical centre in Gambia
  • Carrying out HIV tests in a tent in Gulu, Uganda

Not enough health workers

Lives lost

Sub-Saharan Africa averages 1.15 health workers for every 1,000 of its citzens. A severe shortage of nurses and midwives means that over two-thirds of women in Africa have no contact with health personnel following childbirth. Therefore, Africa accounts for more than half of the world's maternal and child deaths.

Hospitals and clinics in Africa often find it difficult to employ enough trained medical staff to cope with the number of people needing care.

Countries train their own medical professionals, or pay for them to learn elsewhere. Yet, once trained, many professionals decide to work abroad, either to escape instability or to practise where they have better working conditions and a higher salary. (The UK is one of the few countries to have a code which prevents it from actively recruiting medical staff from sub-Saharan Africa.) Some countries (for example, Malawi and Ethiopia) are training health assistants to bridge the gap.

Data collected by the US' Center for Global Development shows that several countries, including Mozambique and Angola, have more doctors in a foreign country than at home. For every Liberian doctor working in Liberia,  two work abroad.

Supplies are another problem. Hospitals and clinics in some African countries lack basic equipment and have inadequate supplies of medicines.

Half of Africans do not have access to essential drugs. With the provision of the right drugs to treat respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases and malaria, around 10 million lives could be saved by 2015.

Ritual and herbal remedies

Minor ailments

In Sao Tome & Principe home remedies are used to treat minor health problems. For example, an ointment made from coconut oil and leaves is used to take the itch out of chicken pox, and a lotion which smells like wine gone vinegary is prescribed for muscle strain. Communities are familiar with the local herbs and plants needed for home-made remedies.

Traditional African healers have been using ritual and herbal remedies to treat people for centuries. In some areas, communities have better access to traditional medicines than to modern cures. For example, it is common to find herbal remedies sold in marketplaces. Many people trust traditional treatments and find the costs more affordable.

Healers often have an impressive knowledge of medicinal plants, accumulated through generations and learnt through years of apprenticeship. This wealth of knowledge is now being harnessed in the fight against diseases such as HIV-AIDS.

Zimbabwe has 45,000 traditional healers and only 1,400 medical doctors.

Conflict hinders prevention

Disruption to daily life and damage to facilities caused by conflict, mean health clinics have an even greater struggle to offer services to local populations. Diseases then take an even greater toll.

In Ivory Coast, the civil unrest of 2011 caused many hospitals in the west of the country to close, during which time their equipment was looted. Now open again, some are struggling to provide even basic services, such as blood transfusions, which are needed for children suffering from malaria-induced anaemia

The movements of populations can also spread disease.

In the past, outbreaks of sleeping sickness have been closely associated with civil unrest in Uganda, Angola and the Congo.