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Where health care has no access: the nomadic populations of sub-Saharan Africa

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Nomadic and seminomadic pastoralists make optimal use of scarce water and pasture in the arid regions south of the Sahara desert, spreading from Mauretania in the west to Somalia in East Africa. We attempted to summarize the fragmentary evidence from the literature on the health status of these populations and to assess the best ways to provide them with modern health care. Infant mortality is higher among nomadic than among neighbouring settled populations, but childhood malnutrition is less frequent. Nomads often avoid exposure to infectious agents by moving away from epidemics such as measles. Trachoma is highly prevalent due to flies attracted by cattle. The high prevalence of tuberculosis is ascribed to the presence of cattle, crowded sleeping quarters and lack of health care; treatment compliance is generally poor. Guinea worm disease is common due to unsafe water sources. Helminth infections are relatively rare as people leave their waste behind when they move. Malaria is usually epidemic, leading to high mortality. Sexually transmitted diseases spread easily due to lack of treatment. Leishmaniasis and onchocerciasis are encountered; brucellosis occurs but most often goes undetected. Drought forces nomads to concentrate near water sources or even into relief camps, with often disastrous consequences for their health. Existing health care systems are in the hands of settled populations and rarely have access to nomads due to cultural, political and economic obstacles. A primary health care system based on nomadic community health workers is outlined and an example of a successful tuberculosis control project is described. Nomadic populations are open to modern health care on the condition that this is not an instrument to control them but something they can control themselves.

Keywords: Africa south of the Sahara; Primary Health care; drought; morbidity; mortality; nomads

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Public Health, Erasmus University, Rotterdam and The Netherlands Institute for Health Sciences, The Netherlands

Publication date: October 1, 1999


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