Youth health: Push to end preventable deaths

“You cannot immunise against depression; you cannot vaccinate against traffic accidents; you cannot immunise against forced marriages. Adolescent health issues are different from those of children and babies.”

Yemurai Nyoni, a 25 year old youth activist from Zimbabwe, director of Dot Youth, is on the Adolescent Expert Advisory Group of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH). He was speaking as a panellist at the Consultation on the UN Secretary-General’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, that closed in Johannesburg on Thursday.

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The previous Global Strategy did not include the adolescent demographic, and was, as Nyoni pointed out, focused on issues that included immunisation and vaccination for all children under five, in an attempt to speed the process of reaching Millennium Development Goals aimed at reducing maternal and child deaths.

Youth – people aged from 10 t0 24 – were left out of the equation, and the new draft Global Strategy is an acknowledgement of how huge this group is, across the world but especially in Africa, where it’s the fastest growing segment of the population: “According to the World Bank, 200 million people in Africa fall into this category, making up 20 percent of the population, 40 percent of the workforce, and 60 percent of the unemployed on the continent.” (Sub-Saharan Africa’s youth bulge: a demographic dividend or disaster? Julius Agbor, Olumide Taiwo and Jessica Smith)

The inclusion of and emphasis on adolescents is a huge step forward, but requires focus on quite different issues. The majority of adolescent deaths annually are from highly preventable causes, says the World Health Organisation – road traffic accidents, for example, are the leading cause of death among teens worldwide. Suicide is another top killer, along with interpersonal violence.

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Adolescent girls are a very vulnerable population, who in many countries can still be forced into marriages far too young, which often results in health issues, particularly due to early pregnancies. Along with tackling the cultural issues that lead to such early marriage, countries need to ensure that girls who seek contraceptive advice are not turned away or intimidated, and to have access to quality antenatal care to reduce the incidence of complications if they do fall pregnant.

“It was especially important for us to come to Africa for this meeting as this is where the challenges are,” said Robin Gorna, executive director of the PMNCH. “We have to be sure that it’s fit for Africa and to get African voices behind it.”

The group of delegates from Africa and other parts of the world which met in Johannesburg included Graca Machel (patron of the PMNCH) and Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s Minister of Health.

Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health

Image: Graca Machel listens to Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, while Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa watches. (Global Health Strategies)

In this working meeting, delegates took a long hard look at the draft for a new Global Strategy and suggested ways in which to panel-beat it to make it more useful and effective. This process will culminate in the launch of the new strategy in New York in September this year.

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