NIGERIA recently overtook South Africa to become the continent’s biggest economy, hosting the World Economic Forum in May 2014 and showcasing the potential of the country.
While commentators and locals alike celebrate the recent growth, many remain pragmatic about the journey Nigeria must take to sustain it – including ensuring the basics such as education, health and infrastructure are in good order.
Many health professionals have recognised the challenges facing health services in Nigeria as well as other African nations, stemming primarily from a lack of awareness of common public health issues as well what kind of help and care is available to them.
Strong, passionate and dedicated health professionals are needed to address these overwhelming challenges, especially those who have a strong understanding and a desire to take a new approach to public health across sub-Saharan Africa.
In the past, public health has been considered a specialised field staffed only by medical professionals. Now, more people from other sectors (such as business and education) have started to understand the multi-disciplinary nature of public health, the need for collaboration and the role that a diverse range of professionals can play in developing a 21st century public health system in Nigeria that is truly fit for that purpose.
The University of Roehampton recently launched a new online programme, a Master of Public Health, MPH, for those currently embarking on a public health career as well as for other professionals who are showing a growing interest in what is an important field emerging in the country.
The online MPH programme increases access to those who want to make a difference in their country and learn best practices from others around the world without having to leave their city or country. In addition, the diverse expertise of people from different professions and different countries helps broaden the way public health issues are assessed and provides the opportunity for others to suggest new solutions to old problems.
Increasing the number of public health professionals in the country will significantly improve its ability to review important public health issues and tackle new challenges in a timely and appropriate manner as they arise, such as the growing threat of Ebola currently in West Africa.
This would be good news for the people of Nigeria, many of whom are often misdiagnosed. Many Nigerians also succumb to common health conditions each year, like malnutrition, malaria, HIV and AIDS and tuberculosis. With proper health education, promotion, programme design, implementation and evaluation from public health professionals, these common health issues could be better controlled.
Only a couple months ago, the Public Library of Science, PLOS, published a report showing that the growing influence of Westernisation could mean a new wave of public health issues for Nigeria.
By becoming wealthier, better educated and more urbanised, regions of Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries are gaining the attributes that would more commonly be associated with Western societies – non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension as well as injuries – requiring the skills and knowledge of a much more diverse public health department than ever needed before.
However, the future of health care looks promising if the right support from government and partnerships with non-traditional groups in the private sector are secured.
In a sector where morale has been traditionally low for a number of reasons, there is every opportunity for new employees coming through the ranks to effect a change, champion the cause and help make Nigeria and other African countries a healthier, flourishing place to live and prosper.
Education will play an important role here, not only in aiding public health workers in their quest to prevent disease and combat poor quality of life, but also in raising awareness of the field itself, demystifying the profession, and encouraging a stronger uptake of programmes and careers related to public health.
The influx of new people into this crucial profession is quite literally the shot in the arm that health care in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa needs to continue its positive momentum.
By Constance Shumba