African countries urged to prioritize investment in infectious diseases amid COVID-19

ETHIOPIA – A new report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has shown that Africa can prevent needless loss of lives and save millions of dollars each year by prioritizing investment in infectious diseases, which pose a significant public health burden across the continent other than COVID-19.

The entry of COVID-19 has already thrown a wrench into the vaccine administration cycle for a number of infectious diseases, putting many more people at the risk of death from other causes, while COVID-19 could indirectly increase the burden of other health problems.

The key findings of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and Pfizer Inc. report ‘Going Beyond the Big Three: Assessing the Economic Impact of Infectious Diseases in Africa’ were presented at a policy roundtable in Nigeria.

The report examines the economic impact of diarrheal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections, which have received little attention due to the disproportionately large focus of public investment on the ‘Big Three’ infectious diseases namely, malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.

According to the findings, the cost of action on diarrheal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections is much lower than the cost of inaction, with numerous immediate and long-term benefits at the individual, societal, and economic levels.

While diarrhea-related deaths have decreased globally as a result of advancements in antibiotics, vaccines, oral rehydration therapy, income, and water and sanitation, diarrheal diseases continue to be the second leading cause of childhood death.

Diarrhea kills more than 1.7 million children under the age of five each year, nearly all of whom live in low-income areas. Those who survive diarrheal infections frequently have other health issues and delayed cognitive development, which can lead to lifelong impairment.

It is in the backdrop of such dire consequences that the report makes a “strong economic case” for African countries to continue investing in other infectious diseases.

Such a move would have manifold economic benefits for the continent as the report reveals that “preventing child mortality from both diseases generates an eight-fold return on investment over the next several decades while costing only 0.03 percent of the country’s GDP per year between 2022 and 2030.”

The advantages include a lower burden on household income, fewer hospital visits, and increased productivity as a result of low morbidity and mortality.

Effective solutions are available to fight the infectious diseases in the developing world. promoting access to and delivery of existing therapies, such as oral-rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc, and developing improved therapies to counter diarrhea-related dehydration and promote better outcomes

As the lead author, Dr. Lesong Conteh remarked when presenting the report’s findings: “Oral rehydration therapy, water supply and antibiotics have the highest return on investment for both illnesses. Scaling up healthcare for both from baseline to national targets in Nigeria will pay for itself three times over in terms of averting GDP losses due to sick children under five.”

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