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Published: Tuesday, 8/10/2004

Rise up for Africa

IT'S hard to imagine that the AIDS crisis in Africa could get any worse. But it is, with the latest wrinkle being an exodus of doctors, pharmacists, and nurses. Nothing will get better for Africa until the whole world gets serious about helping.

The continent has so many problems that attempts to fix any one of them seem like offering one pitcher of water to quench the thirst of everyone in the Sahara Desert. Ironically, the problem is made worse because much of the developed world, including the United States, is also grappling with a decrease in nurses and some other skilled health-care workers. When other countries such as the U.S. and Britain recruit abroad, African nurses move to work, and why not? The nurses go to escape both their pitiful living and working conditions.

Nobody blames them for wanting a better life, but it really is not fair that African countries use their meager resources to train workers who then are nabbed by other nations. This hemorrhaging of the workers is plunging the continent into a situation that's almost beyond hope.

So it's time for the rest of the world to meet worker shortages in a more responsible way. That's one of the sensible solutions listed in a nonprofit advocacy group's insightful new report on the devastation that the decline in health-care workers is having on Africa. The Physicians for Human Rights' report will raise the international community's awareness about the issue. It will also alert the world that a reduction in health care staff in Africa is terrible news for the world.

The report, "An Action Plan to Prevent Brain Drain," also suggests that wealthy nations compensate Africa for recruiting skilled workers at Africa's expense. Plus, if wealthier nations provide subsidies to boost African health-care workers' salaries and benefits, they might be more willing to stay where they are most needed. Holly Burkhalter, Physicians for Human Rights' U.S. policy director, says critics maintain that it's not sustainable to pay higher salaries. But she rightly thinks the time has come when the world can no longer afford to be parochial and shortsighted. "We're facing the worst health crisis in human history. Let's do things outside the box," she said.

The world is running out of time. At an 830-bed hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, only 183 of the required 532 nurses still work there. There would be public outrage if that were the case at an American hospital.

It's time the whole international community shows proper indignation on Africa's - indeed, the world's - behalf.

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