While Addis Abeba gears itself up for the third International Conference on Family Planning, I find myself on the other side of the world, nearly 8400 kilometers away, in Recife, Brazil.
As reproductive health policymakers, advocates and practitioners are gathering at the African Union in Ethiopia, some of us, who would like to clone ourselves to be there with you – and feel like we are there in spirit – are gathered in Brazil for the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health.
Two significant global health conferences are taking place and the links between them are evident. The theme of this year’s family planning conference is “full access and full choice”. We all know that there is no access and no choice, without health workers. As we like to say at IntraHealth International: “Family planning: it takes a health worker”.
Across the globe, 222 million women have an “unmet need” for contraception. They would like to use family planning services, but cannot – often because they do not have access to a skilled and well-equipped health worker.
Millions more health workers are needed in Africa and around the world, in order to provide family planning and other essential health services to everyone. We simply cannot achieve “full access” to reproductive health services without taking on the global health workforce crisis.
The Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health brought more than 1,500 participants to Recife, including heads of state, ministers, policymakers, civil society organisations, researchers and, of course, health workers. The Forum is focused on building a foundation for universal health coverage by strengthening the health workforce and is providing an opportunity for governments, development partners and other stakeholders to renew their commitments towards health workers. This type of sustained public and political accountability will help countries to translate their commitments into concrete actions.
There is no place that exemplifies linkages between political will and full access to family planning and health workers better than Ethiopia. Ten years ago, the country boldly launched its national health extension program with the goal of providing universal access to primary health care services.
The country “put its money where its mouth was”, and deployed tens of thousands of government-salaried health extension workers throughout the country. And the results have been astounding.
When I visited Addis Abeba in September, I had the opportunity to participate in the country’s celebration of achieving Millennium Development Goal Four (MDG-4) – the reduction of child mortality. I also had the opportunity to meet some of the frontline health extension workers – some of the real heroes who are helping to save the lives of young children and offering a wide range of modern contraceptives.
During my visit, IntraHealth International celebrated its 10th Anniversary in Ethiopia, and honoured health institutions and health workers who have made a difference. One of those honoured was Azmera Abera from the Hole Health Centre in Gurage Zone, in the Southern Region.
Azmera excitedly talked about her job and her work in offering consultations, distributing oral contraceptives and administering injectables and implants. One of the reasons Azmera said that she finds it so satisfying to provide family planning services is that she did not have access to them when she was younger. She is proud to be able to make a difference in the lives of those she serves.
Ethiopia’s Minister of Health, Kesetebirhan Admasu, illustrated the important link between the health extension workers and family planning just last month: He wrote: “To make healthcare, including family planning services, a reality where it was not before, we have trained, equipped and relied on more than 38,000 government salaried health extension workers, who fan out into the farthest villages across the country. We have had major victories as a result of these efforts. As women learn about family planning and where to get it, their demand for it rises.”
Use of modern methods of contraception in Ethiopia is increasing. As recently as 2005, only 14pc of women were using contraception. By 2011, this rose to 29pc. As Kesetebirhan noted, this is still low, but rising rapidly. Thanks in a large part to the health extension program, the voluntary use of long-acting modern methods of contraception, including implants and IUDs, increased from one percent to four percent.
We at IntraHealth International are proud to have been working in partnership with the Government of Ethiopia for the past 10 years. We also are thrilled to be a part of the International Conference on Family Planning. And we are honoured to serve as an official co-host of the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health. We know that without a health workforce, there is no health care and no family planning services.
IntraHealth is helping countries to introduce policies and implement programs to produce and retain more, better trained, more productive health workers. We are supporting task sharing to help ensure that health workers at every level of care can offer a wide range of services, including family planning.
We also want to help countries move beyond the statistics and focus on the person – the health worker. The health worker is a human being, with opinions and a set of needs. To do the job well, health workers like Azmera must be present, ready, connected and safe.
Health workers count. Congratulations to the Government of Ethiopia for being chosen to host such a significant global gathering this week – and for increasing its investments in the health workforce.