Africa is still the world’s poorest continent; many of its countries remain rooted at the bottom of global tables measuring access to health care, clean water and free education.
Yet since the turn of the millennium, almost unnoticed elsewhere, the continent has made huge strides in improving life expectancy — so much so that men in 11 sub-Saharan African states live as long or longer than their male counterparts in poorer parts of Stockton-on-Tees or South Dakota.
Across the world, life expectancy at birth has increased in recent decades, climbing from 66 in 1992 to 72 in 2016, when the World Bank last released global demographic data.
But Africa has outperformed the rest of the world, with overall life expectancy increasing from 50 to 60.
That Africans are living longer is due in large part to successes in beating back AIDS.
In the 1990s, anti-retroviral medication that brings HIV under control was scarce, too expensive for all but the richest.
Things could not be more different now. Thanks in large part to an emergency AIDS intervention largely led by George W Bush when he was US president, most Africans with HIV are receiving treatment.
Across southern and eastern Africa, the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, 13 million of the 20 million people living with HIV are receiving treatment. South Africa has the largest anti-retroviral programme in the world.
“The increase (in life expectancy) in the eastern and southern African region — and probably across sub-Saharan Africa — can almost certainly be attributed in a large part to the expansion of HIV treatment,” says a Western aid worker based in South Africa.
As a result, a young person with HIV who starts an anti-retroviral course can now expect a near-normal life expectancy.
Although sometimes derided, the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000 have had a significant impact in boosting life expectancy in Africa.
International funding and aid efforts have seen death rates from malaria fall by 66 percent since 2000, saving millions of lives.
Crucially, there has also been a significant decline in child and infant mortality. Since 1992, the number of children who do do not live to see their fifth birthday in sub-Saharan Africa has halved to 53 per 1,000 births, according to UN figures.
Vaccination campaigns, wider availability of antibiotics, impregnated mosquito nets and better sanitation and nutrition have helped millions of children survive who might once have died.
Two other factors have also had a big impact on life expectancy: greater stability in parts of the region and increased prosperity.
The three countries that showed the biggest leap in life expectancy since 1992 — Rwanda, Angola and Sierra Leone — have all recovered from horrific civil wars. Rwandans had a life expectancy of just 28 in the mid-1990s, but can now expect to live 39 years longer.
Ethiopia, devastated by famine in the Eighties, has shown a dramatic increase as well, with life expectancy climbing to 66 from 49 in 1992. Ethiopia, like Rwanda, is among the African countries with a higher male life-expectancy than parts of California.
Just as significantly, Africa is no longer as poor as it once was. Although some targets set by the Millennium Development Goals were not reached by their 2015 deadline, a key one was: the number of people living in extreme poverty on the continent has halved since 2000.
At the same time, a commodity-driven boom in the first decade of the century saw African economies grow by six per cent, up from just two per cent in the Nineties. Economic theory suggests that when economies grow, life expectancy increases.
From 2010 to 2015, Ethiopia recorded the highest economic growth on the continent and, like Rwanda, won praise for its development policies. Rwanda, though still poor, has a national health scheme that covers 90 per cent of its population.
Despite these improvements, huge challenges remain.
Nowhere in the sub-Saharan region has yet managed to match the developed world in life expectancy. Only in two countries, Cape Verde and Mauritius — both relatively prosperous islands — can babies born today expect to live beyond 70.
By contrast, life expectancy in the European Union stands at 81 — the same as in the United Kingdom — a five-year increase from 1992.
Source: The Telegraph