Young people are key to a healthy future for Africa

by Matshidiso Moeti | World Health Organisation
Monday, 26 June 2017 10:04 GMT

A schoolgirl sits with her schoolmates and sucks a lollipop to soothe her as jiggers - sand fleas that burrow their way under the skin - are removed from her foot in Kalebera village, Jinja district, eastern Uganda August 6, 2015. REUTERS/James Akena

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can Africa harness the energy of young people to create a health system that suits all?

Africa is the only region in the world where the population as a whole is getting younger. While a significant number of countries around the world are grappling with how to look after an aging population, Africa has to look at how to harness the energy of its youth to create a health system that suits all.

Africa's young population - aged between 15 and 24 years - is expected to grow to about 331 million by 2030 from more than 229 million in 2015, according to the United Nations.

This is a population in need of social services including access to healthcare, employment and financial stability as well as an enabling environment for innovation. It requires a youth-centred national development agenda. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “The quality of its youth will determine the kind of nature a nation will have”.

The WHO Regional Office for Africa is looking to focus on this growing youth population at its inaugural health forum held this week in Kigali, Rwanda.

The health and development of Africa’s adolescents is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to health.

One of the main indicators of  the success of universal health coverage - meaning that all people have access to effective health services without financial hardship - is the status of girls. It is a good test for a health system to see if it is able to deliver for the health needs of adolescents and particularly young girls.

We assume very often that young people are healthy. However, it is clear that they have significant problems with accessing sexual reproductive health services, including information for prevention of sexually transmitted infections, HIV, unwanted pregnancies and all of the associated complications.

HEALTHY YOUTH, HEALTHY FUTURE

The focus on getting this right is fundamental, as despite the vitality of youth, HIV has disproportionately affected African children and adolescents.

During the 30 years of the global HIV epidemic, around 17 million children have lost one or both parents due to AIDS – 90 percent of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Currently 3.2 million children under the age of 15 are living with HIV – and 91 percent of these children are in sub-Saharan Africa.

To tackle this challenge, we need an approach to healthcare access that is focused on youth. It will require new and innovative ways of working and interacting with young people.

We need targeted and coordinated systems in place to protect our youth – and for them to become responsible citizens, we also need to invest in them: Our continent’s future lies in the health of the youth.

We should educate our youngest generations and encourage them to adopt healthy lifestyles, work together to create holistic solutions to continental problems – this requires collective commitment, cross-sectoral collaboration, and a "health in all policies" approach to reinforce the point that no individual body, government or group can do this alone in the current global context.

Universal health coverage begins with our youth. We need to act now to safeguard their future.