African ministers adopt regional strategy to manage health emergencies

A woman and child wait to receive the Ebola vaccination in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by: REUTERS / Baz Ratner

NAIROBI — African ministers adopted a 10-year regional strategy for responding to health emergencies at a World Health Organization meeting in Congo-Brazzaville this week.

The plan is focused on strengthening disease surveillance and response systems, with the aim of lessening the impacts of public health outbreaks, such as the ongoing Ebola and measles outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Africa leads the world in the number of outbreaks and health emergencies it experiences, according to WHO. An acute public health event is reported every four days on the continent.

The first continent-wide disease outbreak management strategy was created in 1998 — and hasn’t been updated since. This new strategy reflects the changing dynamics across the continent, including widespread urbanization and changing technologies, according to Dr. Ambrose Talisuna, regional adviser for health security in the WHO African Region. It was launched at the 69th session of WHO Regional Committee for Africa.

DRC struggles with deadly measles outbreak amid ongoing Ebola crisis

DRC is struggling with one of the world's largest measles outbreaks this year, complicating the Ebola response.

A recent WHO analysis found that infectious diseases and other health emergencies are on the rise globally, which, it largely attributed to the growth of cross-border movements, increasing population density, and the impacts of climate change.

A key element of the new strategy is cross-border collaboration, Talisuna said.

“Over the last three or four years, most of the events that we are seeing in the African region have been either cross-border or happening around borders,” he said. “There is a need for countries to strengthen cross-border surveillance.”

WHO is encouraging countries to sign protocols of collaboration and memorandums of understanding with one another, and to develop cross-border plans that lead to joint implementation and monitoring of public health emergencies. This includes information sharing that provides real-time updates on outbreaks to politicians and front-line health workers, he said.

Other key points of the strategy include the adoption of new technologies to conduct surveillance; strategies to deal with outbreaks in complex emergencies, such as in conflict zones; integrating outbreak responses into overall health systems; ensuring there are adequate supplies of health workers; and scaling up community-based surveillance.

However, many countries will face a financing challenge in implementing the strategy, Talisuna said. For long-term sustainability, the strategy calls for countries to use domestic resources, including allocating adequate funds in their national budgets. Effective implementation will also rely on catalytic funding from donors, he said.

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.