Friday, November 26, 2010

Promoting health equity

Talking Drum (2005) / Attribution:
When we hear about health in Africa, we often hear about diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS or water-borne diseases, or people without affordable health care, clinics, hospitals or medications. These are of course real and urgent problems. But what we hear less about are the people who are working to improve health in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation supports some of those people – especially frontline health care professionals, communities and families who are dealing with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This post is about another group – one made up of some of the world’s foremost health specialists, who are based in southern Africa. I’m referring to EQUINET: the Regional Network on Equity in Health in Southern Africa.

EQUINET is a network of remarkable people who are promoting an approach to health in southern Africa that is based on equity and social justice. They are internationally-respected researchers, health professionals, civil society advocates and policy makers – municipal, national and regional -- who also have firm roots in local groups and communities.

The coordinator and one of the founders of EQUINET is Rene Loewenson, director of the non-profit Training and Research Support Centre (TARSC) in Harare, Zimbabwe. She’s an epidemiologist (with amazing energy, I might add) with expertise in public health, occupational health, health and employment, and community participation in health. She's worked at the University of Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions and with UN agencies in addition to establishing TARSC.

EQUINET’s steering committee is made up of people from over a dozen institutions in the region. Along with Rene Loewenson, they include: Ireen Makwiza, Lot Nyirenda and Bertha Simwaka at REACH Trust, Malawi; Lucy Gilson and Ermin Erasmus at the Centre for Health Policy, University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa; Di McIntyre, University of Cape Town Health Economics Unit, South Africa; Greg Ruiters, Institute for Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, South Africa; Yoswa Dambisya, University of Limpopo, South Africa; Scholastika Iipinge, University of Namibia; Noma French Mbombo and Leslie London, University of Western Cape and University of Cape Town School of Family and Public Health, South Africa; Aulline Mabika, SEATINI, Zimbabwe; Selemani Mbuyita and Ahmed Makemba at IFAKARA Health Institute, Tanzania; and Mickey Chopra, Health Science Research Council, South Africa. Additional members coordinate thematic work, alliance-building with civil society and parliamentarians, and national networks.

EQUINET chose to focus on equity after observing the persistent inequalities in health and access to health care in the region. For EQUINET, achieving equity in health means that countries must address differences in health status that are unnecessary, avoidable, and unfair, but also the power relations among people that affect who gets health care. EQUINET tries to influence the way that governments make decisions about health and resource allocation, and also how communities participate in that decision-making.

EQUINET members tackle a range of issues, including people’s participation in health, health financing, health policy, human resources, health rights, trade, diseases like HIV/AIDS and their treatment, and food security and nutrition. They also connect people through national networks, a newsletter and a website.

EQUINET began as an idea, that a few individuals shared and then discussed at a conference in 1997 that brought together researchers, community health activists and senior government officials. EQUINET grew from there thanks to the persistence and determination of a half dozen key people. (I have to admit to having been involved with EQUINET in its early phases when I was working with the International Development Research Centre, one of the early supporters of EQUINET's work.)

EQUINET's reach is wide. It has a dizzying array of collaborative partners in Africa and elsewhere around the world. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is a key partner. Others include the People’s Health Movement, the Community Working Group on Health and International People's Health Council, the Municipal Services Project, the Global Equity Gauge Alliance, the University of New South Wales, Australia, Medact (UK), and the University of Saskatchewan. Then there’s the African Health Research Forum, the International Development Research Centre (Canada), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the World Health Organisation, the Council on Health Research for Development, the International Society for Equity in Health, the Dag Hammerskjold Foundation, Rockefeller and many others.

Despite its wide range of activities and reach, EQUINET’s members remain focused on their primary goal: promoting equity in health for people in southern Africa.

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