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Life expectancy up, but Africa still behind – WHO

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A new report has highlighted the disturbing extent of health inequality across the globe, showing that while life expectancy has risen at its fastest rate since the 1960s, sub-Saharan Africa still lags the rest of the world by a considerable margin.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show that global life expectancy increased by five years between 2000 and 2015 – the fastest increase since the 1960s.

The African region had the strongest growth, up by 9.4 years, driven by improvements in child survival, malaria control and access to retrovirals for HIV treatment.

The increase has narrowed the gap between African life expectancy and European life expectancy by 4.9 years since 2000.

But even so, a child born in Africa in 2015 can only expect to live to the age of 60, compared with the global average of 71.4 years.

A child born in Sierra Leone has a life expectancy of just 50.1 years, more than 33 years less than a child born in Switzerland (83.4). An Australian (82.8 years) can look forward to three more decades than an Angolan (52.4 years).

“The world has made great strides in reducing the needless suffering and premature deaths that arise from preventable and treatable disease,” WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said.

“But the gains have been uneven. Supporting countries to move towards universal health coverage based on strong primary care is the best thing we can do to make sure no-one is left behind.”

The World Health Statistics: Monitoring Health for the SDGs report shows that the declines in life expectancy experienced in the 1990s, caused by the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on eastern Europe, have been reversed.

“The global average increase in life expectancy at birth since 2000 exceeds the overall average rate of life expectancy increase achieved by the best performing countries over the past century,” WHO said.

“The world as a whole is catching up with those countries, and improvements in outcomes for all major causes of death have contributed to these huge gains.”

WHO said it was worth considering a proposal to measure premature mortality – deaths before the age of 70 – as it was more sensitive to interventions.

“There were an estimated 30 million deaths under age 70 in 2015 and, if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) mortality targets had been achieved in 2015, this would have been reduced to 19 million deaths,” the report said.

“This represents a 36 per cent reduction (almost 11 million averted premature deaths) – close to the proposed 40 per cent target.”

Had those deaths been averted, five million people would not have died from infectious diseases, malnutrition, and child and maternal mortality. A further five million would not have lost their lives to non-communicable diseases, and 900,000 people would not have died from injuries.

The report found that Japan topped the life expectancy list, at 83.7 years, and Sierra Leone was the lowest (50.1).

Healthy life expectancy, a measure of the number of years of good health a 2015 newborn can expect, stands at 63.1 years globally – 64.6 years for women and 61.5 for men.

On average, women (73.8 years) live longer than men (69.1 years) in every country of the world. Scandinavian countries had the lowest male-female gaps (Iceland 3.0 years, Sweden 3.4) while some former Soviet countries were among the highest (Russia 11.6 years, Ukraine 9.8 years).

The full report can be found on the WHO website at http://www.who.int/gho/publications/world_health_statistics/2016/en/

Maria Hawthorne