What Is a ‘Healthcare Desert’?



This week, the Save the Children Federation (SCF) – an international organization that enforces children’s rights in developing countries – released a report on so-called ‘healthcare deserts.’ The term is akin to others used in the development world to describe areas devoid of resources (e.g ‘food desert</a>’); SCF defines a ‘healthcare desert’ as an area where a child “has not received any of the six routine immunizations, including diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, or received medical treatment or advice for diarrhea.”  

According to the report, at least 40 million children live in such healthcare deserts, lacking access to health care workers and medications for easily preventable (but often fatal) diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. SCF’s study focused on 25 countries throughout Asia and Africa, naming India as the country with the most children in need. Yet, curiously, India’s economy has grown in recent years. What’s more, the child mortality rate has decreased globally. We look, on paper, like we are generally on target to meet the Millennium Development Goal of reducing — by two thirds — the under-five mortality rate.

What the statistics gloss over is the incredible discrepancy that exists between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in many of these countries. The aid that contributes to lowering the overall mortality rate has not been dispensed equally; in other words, poorer populations see their child mortality rate falling slower than those that are better off. The U.K. Guardian similarly notes:

But SCF’s report shows very clearly that the big picture can obscure the desperate situation of some of the poorest children.

Predictably, the report shows a direct connection between poverty and child mortality. Although the study did not address Latin American countries specifically, it highlights an important phenomenon – where statistics obscure the plight of those with the least access to basic health services – that can also be observed in many Latin American countries. In Peru, for example, the country’s mortality rate has fallen dramatically from around 78 (in 1990) to 22.18 deaths/1,000 live births. Still, in the pueblo joven of Pamplona Alta – one of the communities that MEDLIFE works with – many children continue to suffer from preventable illnesses such as parasitic infections and diarrheal diseases.

Through our mobile clinic program, MEDLIFE works to bring basic health services to those with the least access to health care providers. During the clinics, the majority of the patients served are women and children – several of whom have never before seen a general doctor, dentist, or gynecologist. MEDLIFE also provides follow-up care to our patients, and educational programs for parents regarding their children’s health.

MEDLIFE agrees with SCF’s conclusion that the Millennium Development Goals won’t truly be achieved until the “global shortage of 3.5 million health workers” is addressed, and health programs are extended to the hardest-to-reach children.


Post by Lindsay Bigda, MEDLIFE Director of Communications


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