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N Engl J Med. 1988 Oct 6;319(14):918-24.

Health and medical care in Ethiopia.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.



Ethiopia is a country of 45 million people in northeast Africa. With a stagnant, agriculture-based economy and a per capita gross national product of $110 in 1984, it is one of the world's poorest nations. 70% of the children are mildly to severely malnourished, and 25.7% of children born alive die before the age of 5. Life expectancy is 41 years. The population is growing at the rate of 2.9%/year, but only 2% of the people use birth control. After the 1974 revolution, the socialist government nationalized land and created 20,000 peasant associations and kebeles (urban dwellers' associations), which are the units of local government. The government has set ambitious goals for development in all sectors, including health, but famine, near famine, forced resettlement programs, and civil war have prevented any real progress from being made. The government's approach to health care is based on an emphasis on primary health care and expansion of rural health services, but the Ministry of Health is allocated only 3.5% of the national budget. Ethiopia has 3 medical schools -- at Addis Ababa, Gondar, and the Jimma Institute of Health Sciences. Physicians are government employees but also engage in private practice. A major problem is that a large proportion of medical graduates emigrate. Ethiopia has 87 hospitals with 11,296 beds, which comes to 1 bed per 3734 people. There are 1949 health stations and 141 health centers, but many have no physician, and attrition among health workers is high due to lack of ministerial support. Health care is often dispensed legally or illegally by pharmacists. Overall, there is 1 physician for 57,876 people, but in the southwest and west central Ethiopia 1 physician serves between 200,000 and 300,000 people. In rural areas, where 90% of the population lives, 85% live at least 3 days by foot from a rural health unit. Immunization of 1-year olds against tuberculosis, diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus, poliomyelitis, and measles is 11, 6, 6, and 12% respectively. Infectious diseases dominate the medical scene in Ethiopia. In 1984, tuberculosis accounted for 11.2% of hospital admissions and 12.2% of deaths. The leading cause of childhood mortality in 1984 was diarrhea (45%). Malaria, trypanosomiasis, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, and meningococcal meningitis are endemic. Intestinal parasitism is rampant, and the nationwide prevalence of leprosy is 3/1000. Venereal diseases were the 9th most common cause of hospital outpatient visits in 1984, but AIDS is rare. The leading noninfectious diseases are rheumatic and syphilitic heart disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hepatoma, and elephantiasis. Ethiopia has the highest number of cases of nonfilarial elephantiasis -- an estimated 350,000 cases -- in the world. Aside from a large influx of money, the most necessary changes to improve the health system are lowering the salaries of doctors and nurses, reorienting physician training toward primary health care, increasing the quality of existing health services, more efficient management, and better coordination between the Ministry of Health and the voluntary organizations.

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