International Nurses’ Day is celebrated annually on 12 May in memory of the birth of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, but also to honour nurses as an invaluable resource, and raise awareness of the challenges they face.
Once again, we mark the event today in the context of the global COVID-19 health emergency, which has highlighted the depth of the nursing shortage in Africa, and globally. This year’s theme, Nurses: A Voice to Lead – Invest in Nursing and Respect Rights to Secure Global Health, could not be more appropriate.
Throughout the pandemic, nurses have made great sacrifices, acted courageously and recommitted daily to tackle a global health threat that is unprecedented in modern times, serving as an indispensable pillar supporting African health care systems through some very challenging times.
We most sincerely appreciate and celebrate all nurses in the African Region and thank them for their unwavering dedication in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO African Region has long grappled with a severe shortage of nurses which, if left unaddressed, poses a significant threat to our progress towards Universal Health Coverage. According to the latest estimates, there are 1.6 million nurses and midwives across our 47 Member States.
A total 66% of nurses are concentrated in six countries – Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Nigeria has the highest share of the headcount of nurses at 21%, followed by South Africa at 18%.
The world needs 9 million more nurses and midwives to realize the health-related global Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. WHO in Africa’s analysis has identified a threshold of about 60 nurses and midwives per 10 000 people as a critical point for attaining at least 70% of the Universal Health service coverage index. Currently, most countries have fewer than 20, with the number dropping way below even that for many across the continent.
Nurses have a critical role to play in Primary Health Care delivery, often being the first – and only – health professional a patient will see. They contribute to research, disease prevention, treating the injured, administering palliative care, and more. They are the true unsung heroes on the front lines of disease prevention and care.
It’s common cause that investing in nurses and midwives is good value for money. According to the UN High Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth, investments in education and job creation in the health and social sectors result in a threefold return in terms of improved health outcomes, global health security, and inclusive economic growth.
Emphasizing the true value of our nurses, and the central role they have to play in influencing change, can transform the future of health care in Africa. As WHO in Africa, we are supporting Member States to strengthen nursing and midwifery through the implementation of the Global Strategic Directions for Nursing and Midwifery (SDNM) 2021-2025, and an inter-related set of policy priorities to guide the contributions of nurses and midwives to achieve Universal Health Coverage, and other population health goals.
In our continuing efforts to give nurses a voice, WHO established the Nursing and Midwifery Global Community of Practice virtual network, a forum for nurses and midwives around the world to collaborate with one another, with WHO, and with other key stakeholders.
On International Nurses’ Day today, I want to take this opportunity to call on African governments to commit the necessary investment to help improve the attractiveness of the nursing profession. This will require proper equipment, better working conditions, appropriate education, upskilling opportunities, and job creation.
Nursing leadership also needs to be optimized, with chief nursing and midwifery officers mandated to drive the nursing agenda across education, employment, policy and practice.
Around 80% of primary health care can be delivered by nurses, and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly served as an important platform to reiterate how integral nurses are to the maintenance of routine health care delivery, while also responding to a global crisis.
The case for investing in nursing education, jobs and leadership is clear, and it’s time to commit to action.