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Africa moves to tackle Covid-19 shockswith strong push for vaccine manufacturing

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By Omar Bah,
reporting from Lusaka, Zambia

In addition to directly causing the deaths of at least 200,000 people in Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted critical health services and undermined years of progress fighting other deadly diseases, such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, which continue to be the leading causes of death in the region. A report by The Global Fund which utilises data from urban and rural health care facilities in 24 African countries and seven Asian nations to investigate and compare the spillover impacts of the pandemic on essential health care services for HIV, TB, and malaria revealed that in 2020, access to health care services declined significantly throughout the world compared to 2019. The authors attribute this unprecedented decline in patient attendance to challenges facing both medical facilities and the patient community who due to fear of contracting COVID-19 refused to visit hospitals and clinics. The inability to reach health care facilities due to disruptions in public transportation and stay-at-home orders was also a prominent challenge for patients looking to access health care—a problem, according to the authors, that has been more relevant for urban residents.

Cognisant of these challenges and the damages caused, Africa Centres for Desease Control (Africa CDC) dedicated this year’s Public Health in Africa (CPHIA) International Conference to ‘Breaking Barriers: Repositioning Africa in the Global Health Architecture’.

The conference envisaged to further explore strategies for strengthening Africa’s public health systems and achieving vaccine self-sufficiency was opened by the Zambia President on Monday in Lusaka. The first day was dominated by calls for African countries to mobilise efforts to boost vaccine manufacturing in the continent. African governments and stakeholders dealing with health issues in the region have recognised that for the continent to achieve self-sufficiency in health delivery it must prioritise manufacturing its own vaccines. Currently, only five African countries—Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia—host companies that produce vaccines leaving the continent largely dependent on imported vaccines.

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Zambia health

The Africa CDC has launched the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) initiative, aiming to strengthen Africa’s vaccine manufacturing ecosystem to meet the continent’s 60 percent vaccine needs by 2040.

To support this drive, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) has committed $1 billion to support African nations in scaling up vaccine production.

The director general of the Africa CDC, Dr Jean Kaseya, said the funding is crucial in Africa’s drive towards achieving vaccine self-sufficiency.

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“By producing our own vaccines, we can ensure equitable access to these essential products and protect our communities from future pandemics,” Dr Jean told journalists on Monday.

The local manufacturing of vaccines is expected to finally give Africa full independence when it comes to access to medical care especially when it relates to responding to pandemics.

“We have the ambition to position Africa as a manufacturing hub because we believe the time has come for the world to hear from Africa and Africans themselves,” Dr Jean added.

Much of the current focus of health care delivery in Africa is on traditional and visible factors like HIV and malaria. However, changes in lifestyle and a growing middle class are making noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes big issues among populations.

Zambia’s Minister of Health, Sylvia Masebo said for Africa to achieve its quality health delivery goals its unity towards the common interest must not be compromised.

She as means of demonstrating its support to the African agenda, Zambia has approved and launch the Africa CDC strategic plan 2023 to 2027, which outlines a clear roadmap to address the continent’s health challenges, strengthen public health systems, and ensure a coordinated response to emerging threats.

The continent had made major scientific advances in the last few years, including in digital disease surveillance, and building public-private partnerships. This includes, the formulations of instruments to manufacture vaccines and advance health delivery.

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But the CPHIA co-chair and researcher at the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ghana, Professor Margaret Gyapong, said in as much as Africa has all the instruments available to advance vaccine manufacturing only 25 percent of the regional grouping are benefitting from these instruments and have manage to develop their own instruments within their region.

“So, what we need the rest of the regional communities to do, is to develop mechanisms that can help them monitor, evaluate and score the different member states that they have and also gauge the effectiveness of all the instruments they have agreed to,” she said.

Political commitments

African governments have committed themselves to many protocols and instruments but few of these countries are adhering to them.

Professor Gyapong argued that for Africa to achieve all these targets there has to be unwavering political will.

She said there is still more opportunities for regional economic communities to develop advocacy and evident generation mechanisms that would ensure that member states would take part and also hold them accountable to their commitment.

Despite all the strides made, only 28 percent of African health facilities have access to electricity.

The WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said to address these challenges Africa must remain united. While reaffirming the WHO’s commitment to continue supporting the continent, DG Tedros said the continent must take the lead.

Climate change

Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources.

An African Development Study (ADB) report disclosed that Africa is losing between 5 to 15 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to Climate Change.

To respond to these challenges, Ministers of Health around the world will meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference dubbed COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates to discuss means of finding immediate and long-term solutions.

“Africa needs to prepare and collaborate in the face of new health threats posed by Climate Change,” Dr Jean Kaseya, Director General, Africa CDC said.

He disclosed that eighteen African countries are currently battling cholera with 4000 registered deaths as a result of climate change.

“These factors pushed the Africa CDC to advocate for the implementation of a One-Health approach geared towards addressing effects of climate change,” he added.

Attended by 5,000 delegates and followed online by over 20,000 people from around the world, the Lusaka conference is expected to shape the destiny of Africa in health care delivery. 

It focuses on pandemic preparedness and resilient financing mechanisms for Africa, fostering African-led innovation: Advancing Local Production in Vaccines, Diagnostics and Therapeutics, delivering Universal Health Coverage in Africa – Strengthened and Equitable Health Systems, for Women by Women: Access to adequate healthcare for young girls and women in Africa, safeguarding Africa’s Health Security: health emergencies, biosecurity, climate change, and multi-sectoral response mechanisms, transforming Health in Africa through Digital Innovation, whole-of-society – the Power of Engaging Civil Society, the Private Sector and Local Philanthropy, combating Infectious Diseases, NTDs and Antimicrobial Resistance in Africa and unmasking the Silent Epidemics: NCDs, Mental Health and Injuries.

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