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Measuring health gaps between the rich and the poor: a review of the literature and its implications for health research in Africa

Amson Sibanda, Henry V. Doctor
  • Amson Sibanda
    United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Social and Policy Development, New York, United States
  • Henry V. Doctor
    Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health, Department of Population and Family Health, New York, United States |


Measuring variations and gaps in health and wellbeing across individuals, social groups and societies is a critical issue confronting social scientists in their quest to explain why gaps in health between the rich and the poor persist within and across societies. This article provides a systematic review of the measurement of inequalities and their implications on rural and remote health. A comprehensive literature review was conducted using online databases and other collections of published research on measuring health gaps between the rich and the poor in order to trace the development of this field of inquiry. Despite the enormous information on the subject area, it is not always easy to disentangle the independent effects of social class or socio-economic status (SES) on health inequalities from genetic or biological differences when analyzing racial/ethnic, gender or age gaps in mortality and morbidity. The meaning of SES or social class also varies from one culture to the other. Despite decades of work in this field, it is not clear what it is about SES or social class that is associated with inequalities in health. Is it simply a question of access to resources? And on the issue of measurement, studies from various disciplines have shown that it is important to employ a raft of measures in order to measure and present the distributions fully from various angles and value judgments. In the rural African context, tackling vertical and horizontal inequalities in health requires tackling the root causes of poverty and promoting social policies that empower individuals and communities. Hence, the review discusses recent methodological developments that hold promise for addressing the knowledge gap that remain. We hope that researchers will reflect on the dynamics in measures of inequalities discussed in this paper as they continue to assess the status of health in Africa’s contemporary and largely dominated rural population.


Africa, health inequalities, life expectancy, socio-economic status, Millennium Development Goals, mortality.

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Submitted: 2011-12-15 14:46:09
Published: 2013-07-02 13:59:14
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