As part of efforts to boost healthiness in Africa, health ministers, yesterday, adopted a new strategy that supports building the capacity of district hospitals and other first-level referral facilities to diagnose and manage severe non-communicable diseases (NCDs) early for fewer deaths.
The health ministers, gathering for the 72nd session of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa in Lome, Togo, adopted a strategy known as ‘PEN-PLUS, A Regional Strategy to Address Severe Non-communicable Diseases at First-Level Referral Health Facilities.’
The policy builds on existing WHO initiatives for integrated detection, diagnosis, treatment and care of NCDs in primary health care facilities. It has shown promising results in Liberia, Malawi and Rwanda, with a significant increase in the number of patients accessing treatment for severe NCDs and, a concomitant improvement in outcomes for these patients.
Also, with the burden of cardiovascular disease, mental and neurological disorders and diabetes rising in the region, the new strategy is to boost access to diagnosis, treatment and care of serious NCDs.
Severe NCDs, by definition, are those chronic conditions that that lead to high levels of disability and death among children, adolescents and young adults if left undiagnosed or untreated. In the worst case scenario, patients live no longer than a year after diagnosis. In Africa, the most prevalent severe NCDs include sickle cell disease, type 1 and insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes, rheumatic heart disease, cardiomyopathy, severe hypertension and moderate to severe and persistent asthma.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said: “Africa is grappling with an increasingly hefty burden of chronic diseases whose severe forms are costing precious lives that could be saved with early diagnosis and care.
“The strategy adopted today is pivotal in placing effective care within the reach of patients and marks a major step in improving the health and wellbeing of millions of people in the region.”
In most parts of Africa, severe NCDs are treated at tertiary health facilities that are mostly in big cities. The development exacerbates health inequities, as it puts care beyond the reach of most rural, peri-urban and lower-income patients, who can often only easily access district hospitals and local health centres, that often than not, lack the capacity and resources to effectively manage severe NCDs.
The fresh strategy urged countries to institute standardised programmes to tackle chronic and severe NCDs by ensuring that essential medicines, technologies and diagnostics are available and accessible at district hospitals.
Only 36 per cent of countries in the African region reported having essential medicines for NCDs in public hospitals, according to a 2019 WHO survey.