Africa CDC raises alarm over Africa’s emerging infectious diseases outbreaks

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The Africa Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC) says the African continent is faced with syndemics, a combination of emerging infectious diseases, which are increasing the disease burden across the continent, according to Dr John Nkengasong, Director, Africa CDC.

Nkengasong stated this in Abuja on Wednesday, day two of the Nigerian Conference of Applied and Field Epidemiology, (NiCAFE), 2021, themed “Building Back Better: COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks.”

It was reported that the conference, organised by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), is aimed at strengthening the country’s preparedness for emergencies in infection outbreaks.

“The African continent as a whole faces what we call a syndemics; a combination of emerging infectious diseases. We are dealing with this pandemic, but there will be another pandemic.

“Syndemics are exacerbating the disease burden across Africa. Emerging diseases, non-communicable disease/ injuries/ maternal and neonatal conditions; and endemic diseases, ex. HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria,” he explained.

Speaking on the role of regional health institutions in the prevention, detection and response to infectious diseases outbreaks, Nkengasong disclosed that if the continent had been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, there wouldn’t have been a single country with the reagents to test for the virus.

“A continent of 1.3 billion cannot be that exposed. All countries in Africa now have diagnostics capacity,” he added.

He stated that from the COVID-19 pandemic lessons learnt and response in the continent, “coordination and collaboration is key for a whole of Africa approach, with a critical role for National Public Health Institutes (NPHIs) in pandemic preparedness and response.”

In addition, he added, development of continent specific guidelines and continental political leadership to guide the pandemic response were necessary.

“Similarly, local diagnostic manufacturing of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs),  therapeutics and medical equipment was a health security challenge; vaccines-related innovation was critical for Africa’s health security, while there was an urgent need for the development of Africa’s public health work force,” he explained.

The Director further noted Africa’s limited health facilities, budget and workers, citing the need to have a new public health order for the continent to tackle infectious diseases’ threats, based on specific guidelines.

“Public health is local. You may think globally, but implementation is local,” he added.

Nkengasong stressed the importance of continent-wide coordinated efforts at the national level, recognising that global health security starts with national health security that fits into regional health security.

“Public health is about the pathogen, the population, the politics and the policy. Regional collaboration and cooperation is, therefore, crucial as this is the backbone of health security in Africa,” he said.

Also speaking, President, International Epidemiological Association, (IEA), Dr Akindele Adebiyi, highlighted enforcement as a key consideration in curtailing infectious disease outbreaks.

On disease exposure control and socio-economic factors in outbreaks, Adebiyi described disease exposure as the process by which the spread of disease was minimized by limiting contact between uninfected individuals and other individuals who were potential spreaders of a contagious disease.

He stressed that preparedness must involve true community participation: citizens’ involvement in planning, implementation and evaluation of public health interventions.

Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, (CEPI), stated that in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CEPI established 13 partnerships and deployed $1.5 billion to develop COVID-19 vaccines, representing the largest vaccine portfolio globally.

Speaking on the rapid vaccine development and equitable access to vaccines for COVID-19 and other priority pathogens, Hatchett said the vision of CEPI was to create a world where epidemics and pandemics were no longer a threat to humanity.

“This is not the first pandemic of the 21st century and it won’t be the last,” he said, adding: “We have made major investments in the development of vaccines, together with the NCDC and other partners.”

Hatchett also said that CEPI would develop vaccines against COVID-19, as soon as possible, and make two billion doses available through COVAX by the end of 2021.

He disclosed that the coalition had in 2020 also set up the largest ever Lassa fever epidemiological study, starting in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Ms Zouera Youssoufou, Managing Director, Dangote Foundation, has said that the private sector had a huge role to play in the health sector.

“We need to strategise and think about translating science to speak a language that the private sector can understand,” Youssoufou added.

NiCAFE conference brought together public health professionals, laboratory scientists, field epidemiologists, researchers, health care professionals and members of the public.

The participants reflected on the response to infectious disease outbreaks, reviewed gaps in epidemic preparedness and response and brainstormed on innovative solutions to strengthen health security.