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Brick by brick and doctor by doctor, Angola rebuilds its health care system

© UNICEF/2010/Bloemen
Women and children wait for health services in a crowded clinic in Angola's Huila province.

By Shantha Bloemen

LUBANGO, Angola, 22 June 2010 – In the newly opened red brick Lubango health clinic, a long line of Angolans wait their turn to see one of the two Cuban doctors working here. The doctors were assigned to provide health care to some 30,000 people in the southern province of Huila.

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The Lubango clinic is one of several that have recently opened across Angola. The clinics are symbols of hope for a country once plagued by one of the world’s longest civil wars, which ended in 2002 and left a severely damaged health-care system in its wake.

Skilled health workers

During Angola’s three decades of war, many children had no access to education. Now, about one-third of the adult population is illiterate. The country’s health system was also severely affected. “More than 30 years of war destroyed 70 per cent of the public network,” said Minister of Health José Vieira Dias Van-Dúnem.

© UNICEF/2010/Bloemen
A newborn baby at the Matala Health Centre in Angola's Huila province.

“The major challenge in Angola is training adequate numbers of health workers,” agreed Dr. Koenraad Vanormelingen, UNICEF Representative in Angola. “After years of war, when barely one third of children went to school, much of the population is without skills. So even if you have the money you can’t find the people to hire ... especially in the remotest areas of the country.”

Training health workers has been part of a massive revitalization of Angola’s health system. More than 200 students were sent to study medicine in Cuba, a long-time Angolan partner. The government has built five universities and 45 specialized training schools for health workers. To provide health care in the near term, it has also brought about 800 doctors from Cuba to work in clinics in both urban and rural areas.

Crucial interventions

UNICEF has assisted in the revitalization process by delivering interventions to prevent diseases among mothers and children. The package of services, offered free to all women and children, includes ante-natal care, mosquito nets to avoid malaria, vaccinations for newborn babies and better management of childhood illness such as malnutrition, diarrhoea and acute respiratory infection.

© UNICEF/2010/Bloemen
In Angola's over-stretched clinics, UNICEF supplies a free package of basic health services including ante-natal care, mosquito nets and vaccines.

In a country where more than half of the population lives under the international poverty line and child and maternal mortality rates are among the world’s highest, the UNICEF package of services has become a crucial remedy.

“In the past seven years, we have seen malnutrition rates drop dramatically, from 50 to 30 per cent,” said Dr. Vanormelingen, adding that the overall child mortality rate has also fallen in Angola.

The UNICEF-supported package currently reaches 16 districts in five provinces of the country and about 23 per cent of the population. The government plans to expand these services to reach more than 70 per cent of the population by 2015.

Slow road to recovery

Despite the progress made, Angola’s health care system remains on a slow road to recovery. “Approximately two kids out of 1 don’t reach age five, so we still have a big problem,” said Dr. Vanormelingen.

But the Lubango and nearby Matala health clinics have become signs of promise, their glowing red bricks each a reinforcing message that the current struggle can be overcome.

Rose Ngeve, whose husband fought in the war, waited among the crowd at the Matala Health Centre. The mother of six said she was glad to have access to the free health services, as she derives her entire income from the selling vegetables in the market and washing people’s clothes.

“I want my children to be healthy so they can go to school and eventually fend for themselves and not depend on handouts,” she said.




UNICEF's Shantha Bloemen reports on the revitalization of health care in Angola.
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