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Health Coverage Must Not Ignore Africa’s Elderly

As life expectancy in Sub-Saharan Africa increases steadily, health-care systems in many countries are failing to keep up with the needs of older patients. To ensure that living longer is not a prescription for economic or personal misery, governments must work to extend services to their oldest constituents.

DAR ES SALAAM – My grandmother is 76, and my grandfather is 83. They have lived fruitful lives together, cultivating crops and grazing cattle in a remote village in the hills of southwest Uganda. But whenever I think of them, I am more in awe of their good health than their hard work.

Because of the remoteness of their community, anytime my grandparents need medical care, they must travel 25 miles to the nearest hospital on motorcycles known as boda-bodas, paying about 50,000 Ugandan shillings (about $13) for the round-trip journey. Then, because they were recently dropped from their health-insurance plan due to age, they must cough up more money to foot the bill for treatment. In other words, for my grandparents – and for many older Africans – a visit to the doctor is onerous, costly, and exceedingly rare.

Access to health care is an obsession for experts in international development. In May, at the World Health Organization’s annual World Health Assembly, officials from dozens of countries discussed how to achieve universal health coverage through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And yet, most of the attention centered on mothers, newborns, and children; elderly populations in developing countries were largely ignored. Failure to address this omission would leave an increasing share of the population without access to affordable health care.