Health Workers: Keeping communities healthy

Community health workers (CHWs) play a critical role in their communities every day. They work on the front lines of health systems, often reaching under-served and vulnerable populations in remote towns and villages globally, and work to improve equitable access to basic and essential health services that otherwise may be unavailable or unaffordable. In fact, they are often the vital voices necessary in countries to advance Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Moses Ngwira is among such vital voices. He says when it comes to UHC discourse, he and his colleagues are on the front lines to observe the need for UHC policies.

Moses Ngwira, a health care worker in Malawi. Credit: Karen Louise Boothe

Community health workers provide critical health services in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to reduce preventable and unnecessary diseases and death among community members who may not have access to primary health care services.  Whether they are providing preventative care for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), sustaining achievements in controlling HIV/AIDS, preventing child and maternal deaths, or combating infectious diseases and other health threats, CHWs improve their community’s overall health, particularly in areas lacking the number of health care professionals that are necessary to meet demand.

In Windhoek, Namibia a mother arrives to a tiny community clinic, fashioned from a repurposed shipping crate, because her youngest child has a persistent cough. Without community health workers, she would not be able to access the care her child needs in a city where a nearby private clinic is far too expensive for her to afford.

Mother and children at a community clinic in Windhoek, Namibia. Credit: Karen Louise Boothe

In Uganda, Frank Ategeka is a community health worker from the organization, Rural Aid Foundation (RAFO), founded in 2013 originally as a rural community support, research, advocacy and a social service organization between refugees and Ugandan rural host communities in the Kyangwali refugee settlement in the western part of the country. But, as refugees become more integrated with the citizen population—health risks once primarily confined to refugees—are spreading to more people, he said. “This population,” Ategeka says, “is an important segment of the population that must be served and community health workers in the area are vitally important to the decisions to be made.”

Frank Ategeka is a CHW in Malawi
Credit: Karen Louise Boothe

According to USAID statistics, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 in low- and lower middle-income countries will require the education and training of roughly 18 million health workers.  By equipping, training, and supporting CHWs, they would be well positioned to help fill this health care gap and provide life-saving care and services within their own communities. This would help to reduce barriers in accessing and receiving health care.

The African Collaborative for Health Financing Solutions (ACS) recognizes the critical role CHWs play in their communities and the importance of bringing their vital voices into discussions on how to advance UHC in their own country.  Governments and policy makers in SSA must engage with and listen to CHWs, in addition to all health workers, as they discuss how to make progress towards UHC, and acknowledge CHWs as both effective and integral members of not only their communities but to the health care system and overall health and well-being of people.

2019 World Health Workers’ Week, April 1-7 #WHWWeek