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The critical link between access to energy and health

Universal health and universal access to energy are both global development goals. However, not enough attention is given to their interdependence.  In this post we will explore the strong relationship, the consequences of energy poverty on health and energy’s vital role as an enabler of health care delivery.

On the left, Nigah with her three surviving children

“I had five children but two died early because of illness. I don’t know what illness they had. We tried to treat them but did not receive proper medical help because the closest hospital is 70 kilometers away from here. There is a health center in the next village but it is locked and no doctors come there. Without electricity we can’t store medicines there for critical illnesses” said Nigah, a 25 years old inhabitant of Machela, rural Bihar (India), during one of our field surveys.

Like Nigah, there are 1.3 billion people without access to electricity in the world which means also that 1.3 billion people don’t have access of quality health services close to them. Lack of access to reliable energy in health care facilities is a serious obstacle impeding the delivery of essential health services, particularly in remote rural areas (World Health Organization, 2014).

Here’s why access to energy is a critical enabler for delivery of health services:

  1. Lighting including emergency night-time care and lighting for major health-care priorities such as improving maternal and child health and reducing mortality.
  2. Refrigeration for medicines, blood and vaccines.
  3. Sterilization facilities - patients in low-resource areas often suffer from surgical-site infections. Incidence for such infections is about nine times higher in developing countries than in developed countries.
  4. Electricity for simple medical devices such as scanners for broken bones, cancer detection, etc.
  5. Human capital retention - facilities that have access to electricity not only offer quality health services but also may be better positioned to attract and retain skilled health workers, especially in rural areas. (World Health Organization, 2014).
  6. Mobile and tele-health applications - electricity also enables mobile and tele-health applications, and facilitates public health education and information.

Furthermore, clean energy access has broader impact on health:

1. Modern energy access reduces the use of traditional fossil-fuels such as firewood, kerosene and diesel - according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illnesses attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels (2012 data) for cooking.  Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend most of their time engaged with household work. Most common diseases are stroke (34%), ischaemic heart disease (26%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (22%), pneumonia (12%) and lung cancer (6%). The WHO have also found evidence of links between household air pollution and low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers. 

In relative terms, deaths related to biomass pollution kill more people than tuberculosis (1.5 million) and malaria (438,000) each year around the world!

2. Women and children also spend much of their time harvesting heavy energy resources and thus correspondingly consume their physical energy, producing musculoskeletal disorders and related disability such as neck, head and back injuries, accelerating joint disorders such as arthritis and bringing chronic fatigue. In less secure environments, women and children are at risk of injury and violence during fuel gathering.

Harvesting heavy energy resources produces musculoskeletal disorders and related disability such as neck, head and back injuries

3. Access to energy and impact on food and water security - affordable and reliable energy access also makes possible, more efficient and cost-effective water pumping for consumption and crop irrigation. Clean drinking water is key for health and adequate crop irrigation translates directly into higher agricultural productivity, increasing food security.

Energy poverty has serious impact on health, in particular among women and children. Reliable energy provision at health facilities is a critical enabler of access to many medical technologies and services.

Without access to electricity, many life-saving health-care interventions, prevention of illnesses attributable to household air pollution and collection of heavy cooking fuels, and increase in food and water security measures simply cannot be undertaken.

References:

World Health Organization (2014) Access to modern energy services for health facilities in resource-constrained settings: a review of status, significance, challenges and measurement.

Rice University James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy: The Baker Institute Energy Forum, "Poverty, energy and society."

Written by Rose Chaparro, Communications and Impact Evaluation Manager at Oorja.

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