From Monkey Pox to COVID-19: New WHO Pandemic Hub Head Dr Chikwe Tackles Global Health Challenges
Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the new WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, speaking at the hub’s launch in Berlin.

Monkey Pox, Lassa Fever, Yellow Fever, Cerebrospinal Meningitis, and COVID-19 are some of the epidemics that Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu has addressed as head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Now, however, Ihekweazu’s repertoire of disease experience is about to expand exponentially, following his appointment as the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.

The hub was formally launched in Berlin on Wednesday in event co-hosted by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The aim of the hub is to create the tools and data needed to enable countries to better “prepare, detect and respond to pandemic and epidemic risks,” according to WHO.

Ihekweazu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, is widely credited with modernising and transforming the Nigerian CDC to address the multitude of epidemics that Africa’s most populous country faces every year.

Believing in themselves

Speaking at the hub’s launch, Ihekweazu said that his biggest lesson from working at the NCDC was empowering its staff to believe in themselves.

“I met a group of people that really didn’t believe that they could do what was expected of them,” he said.  “By believing that they could stretch a little bit beyond what they would normally do, they started trying. And once they started trying and succeeding in small steps, they started believing that they could do more.”

He frankly admitted that the new WHO hub faces “a lot of uncertainty, and sometimes a lack of definition in terms of where exactly we want to go.”

Said Ihekweazu: “We have to be comfortable with that uncertainty, but really look for people that would believe the vision and once they believe the vision and … the threats that we face, that we can work together, despite some of the political challenges, despite some of the economic differences between countries.” 

Ihekweazu, who will now be based in Berlin, has a German mother and Nigerian father. He has a Master’s in Public Health degree from the Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf and worked for the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany’s national global health research and surveillance hub.

Ihekweazu was appointed as CEO of the NCDC in August 2016, just as the devastating, two-year West African Ebola epidemic was finally coming to an end.  Although the epidemic struck hardest in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, bruising Nigeria with only about 20 cases, it underscored the immense risks faced by the country of more than 210 million people, where many of the 32 200 health facilities were ill-equipped to address basic health needs.

Ihekweazu spent his first months in office assessing the country’s readiness for other future epidemics – including a range of threats that could potentially be as deadly as Ebola, or even less so, but more infectious, as COVID has proven to be.

“I met Disease Surveillance and Notification Officers without laptops and laboratory technicians with no laboratories,” Ihekweazu wrote in a blog a few months after his appointment.

“Motivated and properly equipped health workers at the frontline of our surveillance work are critical to our disease control efforts. An effective public health laboratory is critical. Proper supply chain management for our medical supplies will ensure that we are always ready for any outbreak.”

Sleepless nights about Ebola

He admitted to having sleepless nights, asking himself: “If we were to have another case of Ebola in Nigeria, would we have the laboratory infrastructure to make a timely diagnosis to recognise it and prevent a large outbreak?”

In June 2017, a WHO team conducted a Joint External Evaluation (JEE) to test Nigeria’s capacity to implement the International Health Regulations (IHR), a set of mandatory laws aimed at ensuring that member states are able to prevent the spread of diseases.

Nigeria’s JEE scorecard was littered with red warnings, and the country’s overall score was 39 percent. But the JEE highlighted the positive role of the NCDC, describing it as “among the most noteworthy best practices observed in Nigeria”.

It described the NCDC’s outbreak investigations as “robust and timely”, and praised the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) activated to respond to outbreaks, and its call centre, which the public uses extensively during public health emergencies.

By 2018, Ihekweazu had doubled the staff of the NCDC and set up laboratories across the country.

In November 2020, the NCDC and external evaluators conducted a midterm JEE and the country’s score had increased to 46%, bringing them from the “not ready” category into the “work to do” category, according to Prevent Epidemics.

New fire

“The NCDC has given the nation a sense of pride,” said Dr Ifeanyi Nsofor, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Nigeria Health Watch, a civil society organisation that advocates for improved health for Nigerians.

In an interview with me a few years ago, Nsofor described Ihekweazu as being “really instrumental in the changes” made to Nigeria’s approach to fighting epidemics.

“He is the new fire in the agency. It is no longer business as usual. He has brought in the right way of doing things. He has the knowledge, the personality and the networks.”

After Ebola, one of Ihekweazu’s next challenges was to deal with Lassa Fever, a viral hemorrhagic fever from the same family as Ebola spread by rats that is endemic in West Africa.

During an outbreak in 2018, the NCDC proved that it was able to act fast to save lives, which Nsofor attributes to the center’s ability to “conduct research while an outbreak was happening”.

“There was real-time gene sequencing of the virus and the NCDC was able to establish that there was not just one strain of the virus but different strains. This meant a different diagnostic process,” said Nsofor.

His new appointment has been praised across Twitter by health experts and ordinary Nigerians.

Speaking at the launch of the new pandemics hub, WHO’s Tedros said of Ihekweazu: “he brings a wealth of experience, and will serve a dual role as head of the hub here in Berlin and as Assistant Director-General for health emergency intelligence in Geneva.”


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