(THE ECONOMIST) — By many measures the world has never been in better health. Since 2000 the number of children who die before they are five has fallen by almost half, to 5.6 million. Life expectancy has reached 71, a gain of five years. More children than ever are vaccinated. Malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS are in retreat.
Yet the gap between this progress and the still greater potential that medicine offers has perhaps never been wider. At least half the world is without access to what the World Health Organisation deems essential, including antenatal care, insecticide-treated bednets, screening for cervical cancer and vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Safe, basic surgery is out of reach for 5 billion people.
Those who can get to see a doctor often pay a crippling price. More than 800 million people spend over 10% of their annual household income on medical expenses; nearly 180 million spend over 25%. The quality of what they get in return is often woeful. In studies of consultations in rural Indian and Chinese clinics, just 12-26% of patients received a correct diagnosis.
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That is a terrible waste. As this week’s special report shows, the goal of universal basic health care is sensible, affordable and practical, even in poor countries. Without it, the potential of modern medicine will be squandered.