Opinion: Only 1 percent of Nigerians have health insurance. Here’s how to change that.

In 2009, our first daughter appeared healthy at birth, lively, and unspeakably cute. However, just four weeks later, her health was failing. She could not nurse and was rapidly losing weight. She cried inconsolably. An echocardiogram revealed the cause. She had congenital heart defects and needed open heart surgery, immediately. But this was not an option in Nigeria. And although my wife and I were both employed — and I worked as a medical doctor for an international nonprofit — we did not have the savings to pay for our daughter’s surgery in India. We suddenly faced both a health crisis and a financial disaster.

Millions of Africans face such catastrophic health emergencies on a daily basis. Usually, however, the cause is preventable or at least easily treatable, if people have the money and the access to health care. But many never get the help they need. As a result, 145 women of childbearing age and 2,300 children under 5 years of age die daily in Nigeria. Women die in childbirth, children die of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia.

International funders spend billions on improving health care in Africa. But only through universal health coverage programs can the continent lock in progress. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the government and its partners should be leading the way by setting up a system to protect people against out-of-pocket payments that can represent a one-way ticket to poverty.

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