Years of war have destroyed Eritrea's health care system, and recurring droughts after independence have worsened the situation. With independence, the country faces the difficult task of providing national health care.
Most medical facilities are concentrated in Asmara, leaving the rest of the country without adequate care. Even in Asmara, hospitals are understaffed and under-equipped. The government has launched a program to decentralize health care and medical facilities, including setting up medical care centres between villages. Yet the challenges of providing adequate staff and equipment continue. Private health care is also available in Eritrea, but is very expensive.
Malaria afflicts many Eritreans, especially on the coastal plains. Dengue fever is also prevalent, and according to the United Nations, HIV infection has been spreading. The government has launched a grass-roots program aimed at HIV prevention.
One of the biggest problems facing Eritrea is the size of its displaced population. Over half a million Eritreans sought refuge in Sudan during the war of independence. Afterwards, most of them returned to Eritrea, but lacked homes and resources. The sudden influx of refugees put severe pressure on the existing infrastructure and health care facilities. Within the refugee community, malaria, meningitis and cholera are common; there is also a high incidence of diarrhea, respiratory and skin infections, and many people suffer from malnutrition. The Ministry of Health has taken steps to address these problems among displaced persons by constructing hospitals and network clinics, but the border dispute with Ethiopia has slowed improvements.
In the absence of an adequate medical system, Eritreans depend on traditional medicine. Traditional healers use medicinal herbs and other local ingredients to treat both diseases and common sicknesses. People also use home remedies. For example, eucalyptus leaves are boiled in water and the steam inhaled to help fight congestion, while for children, the herb rue is ground with warm oil and rubbed on the chest. Onion and garlic fermentations are used as antibiotics.
Healers do not take any monetary form of payment: patients compensate for services by giving food or clothing, and sometimes even jewellery.