Objective To document the inclusion of key medicines for children in national essential medicines lists (EMLs) and standard treatment guidelines, and to assess the availability and cost of these medicines in 14 countries in central Africa. Methods Surveys were conducted in 12 public and private sector medicine outlets in each country's capital city. Data were collected on medicine availability on the survey day and on the cost to the patient of the lowest priced medicine in stock. Findings The proportion of survey medicines in national EMLs ranged from 50% to 90%. In only three countries were more than 50% of such medicines available from central medical stores (range: 15-75%). Availability in nongovernmental organization stores was not consistently better (range: 10-65%) but tended to be higher in teaching hospitals, although the range was similar (15-70%). District hospitals (range: 10-80%) had slightly better availability than teaching hospitals, while primary health care clinics generally had poorer availability (range: 18-48%). Retail or private pharmacies tended to have more survey medicines available (range: 38-62%). There was considerable variability in prices, which tended to be higher in retail pharmacies. Conclusion The availability of key essential medicines for children was poor. Better understanding of the supply systems in the countries studied and of the pattern of demand for medicines is needed before improvements can be made. Medicines must be available, affordable and acceptable to patients. Substantial progress towards Millennium Development Goals will not occur without a major effort to improve access to medicines for children.