Onome Ako, Executive Director, Amref Health Africa in Canada

Every year when World Health Day comes around on April 7, we use the day to remind ourselves about the pressing issues facing the health of people around the world – from universal health coverage to depression to diabetes, all themes from previous World Health Days.

Now, with more than 200 countries and territories around the world hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, this World Health Day is like none I have experienced in my lifetime. We are seeing first-hand how we are all connected through something so fundamental, and essential, as our health. 

Here in Canada, thousands of us are joining in the nightly ritual of showing our gratitude for all of the health workers on the front lines who are risking their lives to protect ours. Through COVID-19, we are being reminded of the life-saving role that health workers play every day in Canada but isn’t always visible.

Through this new lens, we can also see the necessity of skilled health workers providing high-quality health care in strong and resilient health care systems around the world. We all have the right to health no matter who were are or where we live. But, the reality is that a significant share of the world’s population lacks access to even the basics that make the right to health attainable.

Since the theme of World Health Day 2020 is nurses and midwives, let’s take a closer look there. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nurses and midwives represent 50% of the current shortage in health workers, with South-East Asia and Africa being the most affected. If all countries are to meet the global Sustainable Development Goal on health and well-being (Goal #3), “the world will need an additional 9 million nurses and midwives by the year 2030,” says the WHO. Again, most of these needs are in Africa and South-East Asia.

Shortages of nurses and midwives have devastating effects on the health of women and children, in particular, even when the world is not facing the global pandemic it is now. Nowhere is this more evident than in communities in sub-Saharan Africa where Amref Health Africa works. Maternal mortality shows this clearly: sub-Saharan Africa accounted for about 196,000 of the 295,000 women and teenage girls who died from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications around the world in 2017, says the WHO. That’s roughly two-thirds of the total deaths.  Inadequate access to skilled midwives and nurses to assist women throughout pregnancy and childbirth, and care for newborns at the time of birth, is a leading driver in this unacceptably high number of maternal deaths. Without access to the skilled health care provided by nurses and midwives, women and teenage girls are dying from preventable causes, such as hemorrhage, which rarely lead to the death of pregnant women in Canada.

Solutions to these shortages exist. Canadians are strong supporters of efforts to increase the number of skilled nurses and midwives in communities where the need is greatest. In Ethiopia, for example, 16 young women in a remote area of Afar region received the full three years of training they needed to become midwives because of Canadian support. Those new midwives graduated in January 2020 and are now providing much-needed skilled health care to pregnant women and newborns in communities that previously had little or no access.

Kalkidan Ashenafe is one of the new midwives. She says that she decided to become a midwife when she was in high school “…because I have witnessed the community facing health problems due to a lack of trained health workers.” She believes that as a midwife she can “…contribute to the reduction of maternal and child health, especially for those residing in remote and hard-to-reach areas.” Not only are these new midwives now providing life-saving care, but they are also role models for other girls and young women in their communities who see that they too are empowered to finish their education and become the woman they choose to be.

On this World Health Day we need to recognize the vital work being done every day by nurses and midwives around the world, especially in vulnerable communities where they are often the sole health care provider.

But, we also need to raise our voices to call for the acceleration of political and financial investment in the proven solutions that are necessary to ensure that everyone everywhere has access to a nurse and midwife when that care is needed most.