The Healthier Poor

Life expectancy in the world’s high-income countries is now 78 years, while it is only 51 years in the least-developed countries, and as low as 40 years in some AIDS-ridden African countries. For every 1,000 children born in rich countries, seven die before their fifth birthday; for every 1,000 births in the poorest countries, 155 children die before their fifth birthday.

These deaths are not only human tragedies, but also calamities for economic development, systematically reducing economic growth and helping to keep the poorest countries trapped in poverty. But a growing number of programs around the world are proving that the death and illness of the poor can be reduced sharply and rapidly with targeted investments in public health programs.

Big victories in recent years have come through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. The Fund, established six years ago, has provided financing to more than 130 countries to scale up their programs against these three killer diseases. Since then, Global Fund programs have helped roughly one million Africans to receive anti-retroviral medicines to treat AIDS, financed the distribution of around 30 million bed nets to combat malaria, and supported treatment of around two million people with TB.

Malaria can be brought under decisive control through bed nets, indoor spraying of insecticides, and making medicines freely available to poor people in malaria-prone villages. In just two days last year, Kenya’s government distributed more than two million bed nets. Similar mass distribution programs have been implemented in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Togo, Niger, Ghana, and other places. The results are amazing. The poor use the bed nets effectively, and the burden of malaria comes down rapidly.