One billion people receive health services in absence of electricity: WHO

Close to 1 billion people in low- and lower-middle-income countries (1 in 8 of the world’s population) receive services from health facilities that lack an adequate supply of reliable electricity, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll).

Access to electricity is essential for the provision of quality healthcare, from childbirth to handling emergencies like heart attacks or offering life-saving vaccinations. Without reliable electricity at all healthcare facilities, Universal Health Coverage cannot be achieved, the report states.

Increased electrification of health centers is essential to save lives

The joint report, Energizing Health: Accelerating Electricity Access in Health-Care Facilities, presents the latest data on the electrification of healthcare facilities in low- and middle-income countries. It also projects the investments required to achieve adequate and reliable electrification in health.

“Access to electricity in health facilities can make the difference between life and death,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Assistant Director-General a.i, for Healthier Populations at WHO. “Investing in reliable, clean and sustainable power for healthcare facilities is not only crucial for pandemic preparedness but is also critically needed to achieve universal health coverage, as well as to increase resilience and adaptation to climate change”.

Electricity is needed to power the most basic devices, from lights and communication equipment to refrigeration, or devices that measure vital signs like heartbeat and blood pressure, and is essential for both routine and emergency procedures. When health facilities have access to reliable sources of power, critical medical equipment can be powered and sterilized, clinics can store life-saving vaccines, and health workers can perform essential surgeries or deliver as planned.

1 in 10 health facilities lack access to electricity

And yet, in South Asia and sub-Saharan African countries, more than 1 in 10 health facilities lack access to electricity, according to the report, while half of the sub-Saharan African facilities do not reliable power. Although there have been advances in recent years in the electrification of healthcare facilities, approximately one billion people around the world are served by healthcare facilities without a reliable electricity supply, or without electricity at all. To put this in perspective, this is close to the entire populations of the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Germany combined.

Disparities in access to electricity within countries are also stark. Rural primary healthcare centres and health facilities are much less likely to have access to electricity than hospitals and facilities in urban areas. Understanding such disparities is key to identifying where the action is most urgently needed and prioritizing resource allocation where it will save lives.

Health is a human right and a public good

Access to electricity is a major enabler of Universal Health Coverage, the report states, so electrification of healthcare facilities should be considered a top development priority that requires further support and investment from governments, development partners and finance and development organisations.

According to a World Bank needs analysis included in the report, almost two-thirds (64%) of health facilities in low- and middle-income countries require some type of urgent intervention, for example, either a new electrical connection or a backup electrical system and some 4.9 billion dollars are urgently needed to bring them to a minimum level of electrification.

No need to ‘wait for the grid’

Decentralized sustainable energy solutions, for example, based on solar photovoltaic systems, are not only cost-effective and clean but can also be quickly deployed on-site, without the need to wait for the central grid to arrive. Solutions are readily available and the public health impact would be enormous.

In addition, healthcare systems and facilities are increasingly affected by the accelerating impacts of climate change. Building climate-resilient healthcare systems mean building facilities and services that can meet the challenges of a changing climate, such as extreme weather events while improving environmental sustainability.

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