Focus on health: Obama's trip to Africa

Africa this week greeted President Barack Obama with song, dance and children wearing t-shirts screen-printed with the slogan, “Welcome home, Mr. President.” But on the backstreets of Dakar, Senegal, where Obama made his first stop, some people were skeptical that Obama’s visit would make a difference to their daily well being.

“The Senegalese are fed up, and we are hungry,” housewife Fatoumata Ndiaye told The New York Times. “We are asking him to help us.”

Over the course of the trip, Obama will visit Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. In a briefing with reporters last week, the White House indicated that the president plans to address global health issues, such as nutrition and HIV/AIDS, during the tour. Health advocates and development experts have urged Obama not to let issues like child mortality and hunger take a backseat to efforts to increase economic opportunities like trade and investment.

Former World Bank economist Charles Kenny called on the president to “put some meat on the bone of promises he made in the State of the Union address this year,” In an editorial published in Bloomberg Businessweek.

“He promised to join with allies to eradicate extreme poverty, end preventable child mortality, and realize the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” he wrote. “These were, in effect, promises to Africa. The region accounts for about half of the world’s deaths of children before age 5 each year, or a little under 3.4 million deaths in 2011.”

Child mortality rates are improving in the three African countries, according to the Countdown to 2015 Maternal & Child Survival 2013 Accountability Report. Since 1990, Senegal has improved its under-five mortality rate from 135 deaths per 1,000 live births to 65. Tanzania lowered its rate from 158 deaths per 1,000 to 68. South Africa lowered its from 62 to 47. But many children are still dying from infectious diseases like malaria, pneumonia and measles, for which there are cost-effective solutions.

Obama spent Friday morning at an event highlighting hunger in Senegal. Before departing, he met with farmers and local entrepreneurs to discuss new technologies to improve agricultural output in the drought-stricken country, Bloomberg reported. The United States committed to raising assistance for seeds and agricultural technology by $47 billion.

“When people ask what’s happening to their taxpayer dollars and foreign aid, I want people to know this money is not being wasted,” Obama said Friday morning. The assistance is “helping people to become more self-sufficient, and it’s creating new markets for U.S. companies.”

Fifty percent of child deaths are linked to undernutriton, according to a recent Lancet study. In 2012,  UNICEF estimated 20,000 of Senegal's children were severly malnourished. While harvests were fairly good this year, IRIN reported, many families have not bounced back from crises in 2005, 2010 and 2012. More than 60,000 children are at risk for severe acute malnutrition, according to the UN's most recent Sahel regional strategy report.

Later in the trip, Obama plans to chat with South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu about community-oriented solutions to health care challenges. On July 2, Michelle Obama will address women’s health during an African First Ladies’ Summit hosted by the George W. Bush Institute.

This is Obama’s second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since he took office in 2008. The first was a 20-hour trip to Ghana.

Some have criticized Obama for neglecting the continent during his first term — especially when it comes to health. By comparison to George W. Bush, wrote Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi in an op-ed for The Guardian, Obama "appears to be struggling to develop a coherent African strategy."

“Obama's much-vilified predecessor set a pretty impressive record of engagement with Africa,” he wrote. “Under Bush II the US government launched PEPFAR, a remarkably successful $15 billion commitment to tackling HIV/Aids. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US foreign aid organization that rolls out poverty reduction programs in developing countries (much of its work is in Africa), was established during the Bush era.”