What if Seattle had just 17 doctors? And, suppose there were only 150 nurses to support them. We'd be facing a public-health disaster. With no one to...

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What if Seattle had just 17 doctors? And, suppose there were only 150 nurses to support them.

We’d be facing a public-health disaster. With no one to deliver immunizations, thousands of children would fall sick from preventable diseases such as measles. Maternal deaths would rise as prenatal care and assisted childbirth in hospitals became scarce. Infectious diseases would spread unchecked and their victims would be unable to access lifesaving treatment.

In Seattle, such a situation is hardly imaginable. And yet, in Mozambique and many other African countries, it is the everyday reality. For every 100,000 people, there are only three doctors and 22 nurses in Mozambique.

This tiny group of health professionals is overwhelmed with epidemics. HIV/AIDS affects one in seven working-age adults, and women have a 1-in-10 chance of dying in childbirth.

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In recent years, health centers and hospitals have received funding for medications and technical support through programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

But, even when drugs are available to fight these diseases, Mozambicans are grappling with a dilemma of “medicines without doctors.” There simply are not enough health-care workers to go around.

What can we do? In fact, quite a lot.

A bill being considered in Congress, the African Health Capacity Investment Act, will help ministries of health in sub-Saharan Africa train, recruit and retain doctors, nurses and other health-care providers and strengthen national public-health systems.

We should congratulate Sen. Patty Murray and Reps. Jim McDermott and Adam Smith, who, as co-sponsors of this bill, have shown their commitment to sustainable, real solutions to intransigent global-health problems. And, Sen. Maria Cantwell has just signed on as well. We can urge other members of Washington’s congressional delegation to join the list of co-signers.

We can also advocate that more global-health funding go to overall health-system needs, alongside specific disease programs.

In addition to increasing resources for health-system strengthening, we can advocate for canceling Third World debt.

Despite debt cancellation that has been granted to the poorest, most “highly indebted” countries, sub-Saharan Africa continues to pay billions of dollars in debt service each year. If that money were available for training health-care workers and improving working conditions, the public-health system would have more hands on deck to respond to the growing health problems.

Without the resources to expand their health work force, it’s difficult to envision how African and other poor countries will ever extricate their populations from the vicious cycles of illness, shortened lives and poverty.

If we shudder to imagine Seattle with only 17 doctors, how can we rest easily when so many others are condemned to health-care systems built on those shaky foundations?

Seattleites should demonstrate their support for programs to ensure that everyone has access to quality health care delivered by trained professionals, no matter where they live.

Meredith Fort is a Ph.D. student in public health at the University of Washington and works with Seattle-based Health Alliance International, which has programs in Mozambique, Timor-Leste, Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire.