Life Expectancy in Zambia

Yesterday the road in front of our house was like the Santa Monica Freeway, which is especially odd when you consider that we live 3 km out on a very poor pot-hole rock-laden dusty red-dirt road.  It’s nearly impossible to find someone’s home back here because the dozens of crisscrossing roads are unnamed, and there are no numbers or addresses on homes.  (When people come to visit us I have to give them road markers, “turn right at the three-way split and follow the bougainvilleas on your left,” then “turn left at the corner house with three German Shepherds who will escape through the electric fence and try to block your path,” etc.)

I figured the traffic was due to the half-dozen cardboard “Funeral Home” signs directing people how to get from Leopards Hill road (the main drag) to the neighbor three plots down from us who had erected a huge white tent on their property early yesterday.  Usually I take the dogs for a long peaceful walk every evening amidst the blooming foxglove, wild orange daisies and tall pink-flowered grasses, but today one vehicle after another passed us (I finally picked up Buddy and carried him), many driven by stone-faced men in military uniforms who stared (rudely if you ask me!) at the friendly white mid-westerner waving hello as they passed.

Turns out that the former Vice President, George Kunda, died yesterday and people were coming to his home to pay their respects.  When I heard this I looked up his obituary in the newspaper (see this).  I was shocked to see that he was born in 1956, which meant he was only 56 years young.  To most Americans of my generation, the new middle age is 50-80 years.  We don’t think of people as “elderly” until they’re at least 80.  Many of my friends didn’t even have their first child until they were over 40 and several of my male friends over 50 are still having children (some their first-born!).  (I think this is pretty common in academia – you get through grad school and the tenure process and then you have kids.)  Kunda’s death reminded me of how frequent and common funerals are here in Zambia.  This led me to look up life expectancy figures for Zambia.

I couldn’t believe what I found!  The figures vary according to source but most agree that life expectancy is only 40-something.  This article, published in January of this year, placed life expectancy at 43 years, up from 37 years.  Yikes!!  Can you believe it?  In the United States people are still getting settled in their careers, married, and started with their families at age 37.  The article attributed the “increased” life expectancy in Zambia to more effective TB treatments.  (In Zambia, TB is often code for HIV because 70-80% of those who have TB have HIV, see this and this. If someone under 50 dies of TB or pneumonia, you know it’s likely they had HIV.) The World Bank is a bit more optimistic and places life expectancy for Zambians at 47 years (see this).  You can see from this World Bank graph below of Zambian life expectancy at birth that even before AIDS, life expectancy was only about 52 years.

This means that if I were Zambian a good 50% of all of my friends, and three-quarters of my relatives, would be dead.  Here is the comparable life expectancy graph for the United States.

Of course, infant mortality is much higher in Zambia, which accounts for some of the low life expectancy, but AIDS-related deaths account for a lot of the adult mortality here.  The graph below shows that for those making it to age 15, there have been huge increases in lost years of life during the so-called “productive years” (ages 15-50) in more recent decades as compared to earlier decades.  For the time period 1980-1990, the two left bars for each age group below show minimal lost years of life compared to previous decades (~0-2 years; i.e., the death rates stayed about the same per age group); however, for the time period 1990-2000, the two right bars for each age group below show substantial lost years of life (~2-15 years) compared to previous decades.  On average, there was an increase of 11 lost years of life for the more recent decade (1990-2000) compared to the previous decade. It’s interesting to note in the graph below that if you make it to age 60 in Zambia, you’ve actually gained years and are living longer now as compared to previous decades.

Of course, it’s widely assumed that the increased lost years of life in more recent decades for those of productive age is due to AIDS-related deaths (since accidents and other causes of death for those age 15-50 seemed to have remain fairly constant).  What’s interesting here is that the pattern of HIV infections is very different from the U.S.  In the U.S. HIV/AIDS tends to affect marginalized groups like drug users, gays and the poor.  In Zambia (and much of Africa) it’s the opposite — the research shows that the better off and more educated one is, the more likely s/he will have HIV (because wealthy men especially often have many girlfriends and then infect their wives too; see this as a typical story).  Indeed, in Zambia, “infection rates are very high among wealthier people and the better educated.” The adage that you can’t tell by looking or even knowing someone’s lifestyle and history in Zambia is so true – judgments like “she’s super religious” or “he is a very honorable and ethical judge/doctor/professor” just don’t matter.  I have been surprised so many times when I’ve come to find out so-and-so has HIV and/or just died of “TB” (at age 34 or 27 or 41).  It’s so different here compared to the states.

In any case, back to George Kunda, he beat the odds and lived about a dozen years longer than average life expectancy here in Zambia.  Still seems that he went too young and that he had a lot of things he wanted to finish.  Rest in Peace Mr. Kunda.

p.s.  I just came across this article, Zambia: President Michael Sata declares three days of national mourning in honour of the late George Kunda.  I find this gesture very magnanimous of President Sata given that Mr. Kunda was currently challenging the legitimacy of Sata’s standing vice president,* and, had at one time tried to make it illegal for anyone without a college degree to run for president, presumably to prevent Sata from being elected.**  Civility reigns in Zambia!

*“Just before he [Kunda] died, he was stealing the limelight and airwaves for itching to challenge the Vice-Presidency of Dr Guy Scott in the courts of law because his parents are not first generation Zambians even though Dr Scott himself is a bona fide Zambian who qualifies to be Vice-President according to Attorney-General Mumba Malila citing the law.

**”In 2006, he stole the lime light again when he formed the National Constitution Commission (NCC) to come up with a draft constitution that almost made it illegal for anyone without a university degree to run for the Office of the president a clause widely seen then as having targeted President Sata whom the MMD thought had no university qualification.

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About Kimm X Jayne

Gravatar Photograph from the exceptionally talented Ben Heine. http://www.flickr.com/photos/benheine/3794765860/
This entry was posted in About Zambia, The Neighbors and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Life Expectancy in Zambia

  1. Maureen Witte says:

    Very interesting post! Hopefully the scourge of HIV will diminish with all of the aid that’s been put into the battle against it. The prevailing culture just makes this so challenging! Hope you and Thom continue to do OK. Alex seems to think you’ll be returning from Africa soon. Send me an email.

  2. medwoman says:

    Reblogged this on medwoman and commented:
    Amazing stats from an amazing woman. Thanks

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