Improving Health in Developing Countries

11 November 2005 | British Medical Journal: Rapid Responses

In 1950, the population in that arc of high human fertility made up of Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan (excluding Turkey) amounted to 310 million. It now stands at 1200 million, and is estimated to be over 2,400 million by 2050.
(Figures from United Nations World Population Prospects 2004 Revision)

This population increase of over two billion people in a century is in great part due to the spread of western medical expertise. It has been a great feat, and last week’s BMJ with four articles dealing with the developing world shows that we hope – now with the help of many others – to sustain the effort.

The scale of this success in saving lives can be illustrated by a few examples of population increase in the decade 1990-2000. In those ten years, Iraq increased by over 6 million to bring the number of Iraqi’s to 25 million; Afghanistan increased by 9 million to reach 24 million; Pakistan increased by 31 million taking the total to 142 million; and Nigeria increased by 27 million to total 117 million.

(In 1950, the population of these four countries was 5 million, 8 million, 37 million, and 33 million respectively. In 2050, the population of these four countries – as estimated by the UN – will become 63 million, 97 million, 304 million, and 258 million, respectively.)

In the 1950’s and 1960’s it was generally accepted that this rate of population increase, if left unchecked, would make the eradication of poverty impossible. In recent decades this insight has been almost completely lost. Nevertheless, even coming fifty years too late, family planning remains by far the most effective – and cost effective – means of relieving poverty and improving health in developing countries.

Gerald Danaher
Retired NHS GP

Competing interests: None declared