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Time Has Come to Balance the Scale for Safe Surgical and Anaesthesia Care in Africa, Nkeiruka Obi

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By Mrs. Nkeiruka Obi

Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at Smile Train

 Allow me to start with a story. In one of the largest pediatric hospitals in Zambia, I saw theatre nurses stuff warmed up cotton wool on a child undergoing surgery to prevent hypothermia. I have seen a midwife deliver a baby with a phone torch tied to the forehead to illuminate the delivery room. These experiences are common but are they the most appropriate methods?

Surgical care saves lives, prevents disabilities, and is the bedrock of functional health systems, addressing the full extent of human disease. When properly resourced, it plays a fundamental role in every hospital and health facility – resulting in stronger health systems overall – providing a clear pathway toward Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Yet, optimally functioning surgical systems have failed to materialize in many under-resourced countries.

I recently attended the International Symposium on Strengthening Surgical, Obstetric, and Anaesthetic Care Systems in Africa which was hosted in Senegal and led by Mercy Ships. It gathered Ministers of Health from across the continent for authentic and thought-provoking reflection on how important strengthening surgical and anesthesia care in Africa is.

First and foremost, healthcare alone cannot change health.  There’s a saying that goes, “a single finger is not enough to clean the face”.  We have seen that it’s no longer an option, partnerships that foster accessibility, accountability, and transparency in providing safe and quality surgical and anesthesia care in LMICs are paramount.   It is crucial to synchronize efforts for multi-stakeholder engagement. Private and public stakeholders must recognize the enormous health toll and financial burden of surgical disease and avoid working in silos.

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Secondly, the time has come for streamlining processes at the policy level. Policy implementation and regulatory frameworks must be designed to attract to use of finance and new technologies in ways that generate sustainability. It is only through a cross-sectoral approach that we can achieve the primary goal of strengthening surgical systems in Africa.

We can’t afford to let landmark global commitments to Universal Health Coverage fall by the wayside. ​​We must hold ourselves as expert leaders responsible for building and safeguarding systems that leave no one behind, starting with health and unlocking dividends for wellbeing and progress everywhere. Let’s balance the scale of equity in meeting everyone’s needs, no matter who or where they are.

The neglect of surgical care has devastating social and economic consequences, especially for Africa with a rapidly growing population of 50% children and adolescents. The data is well established (Lancet Commission on Global Surgery).  The political mandate has been established with WHA Resolution 68.15.

National Surgical Obstetrics and Anesthesia Plan (NSOAP) is identified as an entry point, the global surgery community and its partners are waiting to support its implementation in strengthening the capacity of the local SOA workforce with scalable and sustainable resources to enable them offer culturally appropriate care for our patients and to extend their care even beyond without the risk of brain drain.

Nigeria NSOANP implementation, an example with Smile Train support indicates that surgical services can be scaled to the community level, with the right investment in leadership and governance, resource mobilization and planning (funding, workforce, and infrastructure, research prioritization for an evidence-based solution towards patient preparation and treatment accessibility to these essential services. There is also a need to prioritize pediatric surgical care.

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Smile Train is a global cleft-focused non-profit, centered on improving health equity around the world by offering those born with cleft lip and palate access to safer surgeries and comprehensive cleft care in LMICs. In Africa, over 160,000 patients have benefited from our program across 41 countries…nutrition, psychosocial support, anesthesia, surgical and nursing care, speech therapy, orthodontics, biomed SIRT, research funding, ENT, and Oral Health. We have made a significant investment in surgical and anesthesia training by collaborating with accreditation bodies such as the West African College of Surgeons (WACS) and the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA) and building Africa’s first Cleft Centre of Leadership & Excellence in Ghana.

The task is enormous.  As we climb this mountain, we acknowledge its fair share of obstacles. From limited funding (national budgets), roadblocks in trade (importation of surgical equipment), education (huge deficit SOA workforce density), lack of infrastructure, and lack of transparency, we remain positive and resolute that the deliberations today will open more in-roads to ensuring equitable access to care and better health outcomes for those at greatest need in all Africa countries.

As we advocate governments to take appropriate action to prioritize health care, strengthen local health systems through investment, resources, and local capacity building, and use data to inspire research, innovate, improve systems and maximize impact, let us continue to work together and ensure that local surgical teams are equipped to deliver safe, quality, people-centered care in their communities. Smile Train is here to collaborate and partner.

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