There has been rapid progress in palliative care in Africa since the World Health Assembly in 2005 which identified palliative care as an urgent humanitarian need. Palliative care is now recognised as a basic human right, and momentum has gathered to translate this into action. From being significantly present in only five countries in 2004, palliative care is now delivered in nearly 50% of African countries. Even so, still less than 5% of people in need currently receive it, and with an estimated 300% increase in the need for palliative care for people with non-communicable diseases over the next 20 years, and with those living with HIV needing more prolonged support, the demand for palliative care will continue to outpace supply. African countries adopting a public health approach and networking together through palliative care associations are beginning to embed and integrate palliative care into health systems and communities. Current challenges are to increase coverage while maintaining quality, to develop dynamic and flexible responses to the changing illness patterns in Africa, and to counter false beliefs. Resourcefulness and harnessing new technologies such as mobile phones while respecting cultural traditions, may be the way forward. The authors review recent progress in policy, service provision and training initiatives in Africa, illustrate the current situation at grass roots level from a recent evaluation of programmes in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda, analyse the current urgent challenges and suggest some ways ahead.
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