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Introduction to Country Context

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Africa is the world's second largest continent in both area and population, after Asia. At about 30 244 050 km², including its adjacent islands, it covers 20.3% of the total land area on Earth. Broad to the north (7400 km wide), Africa straddles the equator and stretches about 8050 km from the northern tip of Algeria in the north to Cape Agulhas (South Africa) in the south.

Most of Africa is a series of stable, ancient plateau surfaces, low in the north and west and higher (rising to more than 1830 m) in the south and east. Africa's six climatic zones are largely controlled by the continent's location astride the equator and its almost symmetrical extensions into the northern and southern hemispheres. These climatic zones are: the tropical rainforest climate around the equator; the savannah climate north and south of the equator; the semi-arid and arid climate around the Sahara and Kalahari; and the Mediterranean-type climate at the north and southern tip of the continent.

The African Region is one of six regions of WHO. With over 730 million inhabitants in 46 countries (see figure), it accounts for about one seventh of the world population.

Population size (in thousands) of countries of the WHO African Region, 2009

The people are distinguishable in terms of linguistic and cultural groups, which number around 1000. Languages of Europe have also acquired prominence; for example, English, French and Portuguese are official languages in several countries.

In the early 19th century, the European imperial powers occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial nation states and leaving two independent nations. This occupation continued until the conclusion of the Second World War, after which all colonial nation states gradually obtained formal independence. In the early postcolonial period the major challenges facing new African states were:

  • the need to develop natural resources, institutional capacity and improve living standards;
  • threats of disasters from natural and human causes, such as civil wars.

Recognizing that unity and cooperation were needed, African nations established the Organization of African Unity in 1963.

This profile describes the health status and recent trends, health coverage and the progress made on reaching the Millennium Development Goals. It also describes the various components of the health system, specific programmes and services and the broader determinants of health in the Region. The profile uses a mixture of text, tables, graphs and maps to give a comprehensive profile of the Region.