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Precision maps pinpoint areas of improvement and failure in Africa

Steady progress has been made in many parts of Africa on children's health and education, but stark inequalities remain in some regions, according to precision maps from two new studies. The researchers, writing Wednesday in Nature, add that none of the continent's countries are likely to end childhood malnutrition by the United Nations' goal of 2030.

Why it matters:

"Such fine-grained insight brings tremendous responsibility to act. It shows governments, international agencies and donors exactly where to direct resources and support. ... Without good data, we’re flying blind. If you can’t see it, you can’t solve it."
— Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, wrote in Nature
Reproduced from Osgood-Zimmerman, et al., 2018, "Mapping child growth failure in Africa between 2000 and 2015"; Map: Axios Visuals

The details: The two studies, which used new geostatistical tools to examine data collected between 2000–2015, map the African continent in 5 x 5 square kilometers.

  • One examines 3 main factors for child growth failure (CGF): stunting (insufficient height for age), wasting (insufficient weight for height), and being underweight (insufficient weight for age). The team pooled geolocated info from tens of thousands of villages for kids under the age of 5.
  • The other looks at the average years of education received by males and females aged 15 to 49.
  • "Together, these things really affect the development of 'human capital,'" says Simon Hay, senior author of both studies and director of local burden of disease at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
  • "National summary values can mask an awful lot," Hay tells Axios. "You can leave a lot of these populations behind [without closer scrutiny]."

What they found, for child growth failure:

  • Nearly all African countries demonstrated improvements and many areas are expected to meet the World Health Organization Global Targets 2025 to improve maternal, infant and young children nutrition.
  • However, Hay says, high levels of factors that contribute to CGF continue to be found in the Sahel region, which includes 14 countries from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east.
  • CGF was the second leading risk factor for child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa — causing more than 23% of deaths for children under 5 years old.
  • While many countries may meet the WHO's targets, most or all of them are not expected to meet the tougher UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

What they found, for education:

  • Students in several African nations are staying in school longer, especially in the urban areas of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Sudan and South Africa.
  • However, there are wide gaps in schooling between genders as well as for people in rural versus urban areas.
  • Very low levels of basic schooling were found in rural areas of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Niger and Uganda. For example, the national average in Nigeria in 2015 was 7 years but the study found the range was 2 years in the north and 10 years in the south.

What's next: Hay says he hopes the data presented by the precision maps will enable targeted policies from African nations and better assistance allocation from organizations like USAID. Hay says IHME will be issuing more mapped health metrics for Africa and other countries this year.

Pernima Menon, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in India, tells Axios the smaller geographic data is "really exciting." However, she adds, a "concern" for her is how this study will translate and be acted upon by people working at the local level.

"This study shows us the outcomes, but it doesn’t tell us how the combination of determinants is playing out. And that locally-focused diagnostic work is essential for the action to happen to accelerate these trends.  So for me, what happens next — after we have this precision-focused data — is quite important," Menon tells Axios.

Go deeper: IHME offers a video on the studies plus online visualization tools on CGF and education attainment study. North Carolina State University's Brian Reich and Pennsylvania State University's Murali Haran wrote a "News and Views" piece published in Nature.

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