Africa must ensure its own health security, says head of Africa CDC

AFRICA – According to leading African health experts Christian Happi and John Nkengasong in the 6 January 2022 edition of science journal Nature, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the urgent need for Africa to achieve self-sufficiency in health security.

They argue that the fact that Africa is struggling to vaccinate its population while developed countries are providing booster doses to their own citizens demonstrates the importance of the continent ensuring its own health security.

African leaders, they say, face a stark choice: either embrace new ways of doing public health or risk failing to confront the infectious-disease threats of the twenty-first century and achieve the ambitious development goals of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

The authors, who are the director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) and the outgoing director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), propose five steps to accomplish this goal.

Africa’s remarkable response to pandemic

Happi and Nkengasong describe Africa’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic as “remarkable” in the early months.

According to the authors, Africa has made “astonishing gains” in surveillance and public health responsiveness, as well as being “a key player in the acquisition of scientific knowledge that has guided the global response” to Covid-19.

The continent’s response has been rapid and collaborative, beginning with the convening of an emergency meeting of African health ministers just days after the first report of Covid-19 in Africa to establish a joint strategy, and continuing with immediate measures taken by African countries to curb the spread of the virus and ongoing meetings at the continental level to coordinate the response.

They claim that their actions “contrast to the inflexibility seen in other parts of the world.”

In a recent interview with African Business, Nkengasong, who is set to join the US government as ambassador-at-large and coordinator of United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS Globally at the Department of State, emphasized the importance of Africa CDC in combating the virus.

“Compared to how the AU responded to the Ebola outbreak, it is like day and night,” he said.

Happi and Nkengasong argue that the rapid response and coordinated actions taken across the continent were at least partly responsible for Africa’s relatively low mortality rate.

At the time of writing on 13 December 2019, there were 8.9 million Covid-19 cases and approximately 225,000 deaths across Africa, which contrasts sharply with early predictions that up to 70 million Africans could be infected by June 2020, with more than 3 million people dying.

Happi and Nkengasong also highlight Africa’s significant contribution to genomics during the pandemic: South African researchers were responsible for identifying the virus’s Beta and Omicron variants.

Limitations of multilateralism

Despite being a “key player in the acquisition of scientific knowledge that has guided the global response,” Africa is now falling behind the rest of the world.

“Globally, approximately 47 percent of people have been fully vaccinated, and many countries are providing an additional (booster) dose to their citizens.” Despite this, Africa continues to struggle, with only about 7% of eligible people receiving full coverage.”

According to the authors, this should serve as a “sharp reminder to African leaders of the fragility of international cooperation and multilateralism.”

Nkengasong spoke to African Business in April 2020, at a time when African countries were having difficulty purchasing tests and other equipment to combat the pandemic.

Africa’s shortfall was caused by richer nations outbidding the developing world in their ability to purchase materials, rather than a lack of funds or political will, he said.

“We’ve learned that when the world is challenged with access to limited commodities then global solidarity collapses,” he declared.

While multilateralism will always be important for responding to epidemics and pandemics, Happi and Nkengasong write in Nature article that “Africa’s reliance on the outside world sustains a lack of confidence in Africa – both within and outside the continent.”

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