Nkengasong Exits Africa CDC with Mixed Feelings as Omicron Cases Rise in Southern Africa
africa cdc
Africa CDC’s Director John Nkengasong

Within the last five years, Africa CDC has grown into a “formidable” public health agency.  

But equally formidable challenges remain for the agency, which must provide advice and guidance on Ebola, cholera, measles – as well facing yet another surge in COVID cases in South Africa – the country hardest hit by SARS-CoV2, says outgoing director John Nkengasong.  He was speaking at a farewell press briefing Thursday, shortly after being confirmed by the US Senate to lead the United States President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

The continent also faces an uphill battle to increase rates of COVID immunization in a region where many people don’t see the disease anymore as a major threat.  Against a WHO goal of having 70% of Africans immunised, only about 17% of Africans have had two jabs, and only about 30% of people in South Africa, despite being the country hardest hit by the successive pandemic waves.  

Future trajectory uncertain

“The future trajectory remains very uncertain, and unpredictable, except we vaccinate up to at least 70% of our population,” Nkengasong said.

“I’m departing the Africa CDC with a lot of mixed feelings,” he added. “One is really of joy to see that for the past five years, we collectively as a continent, in partnership with close allies, have actually built a formidable Africa CDC — a public health agency agency that has become a respectable public health organization for the continent and for the world, and is contributing in the fight against COVID-19 and other global health insecurities.  

“But with the right determination, I’m very convinced that we are going to make it as a public health agency,” he said.

Reacting to Nkengasong’s new PEPFAR appointment, African leaders told  Health Policy Watch that he’ll reinvigorate the US-funded programme that has been a flagship for the global battle against the AIDS pandemic for nearly two decades.

Southern Africa’s COVID upsurge

Meanwhile, the WHO African Regional Office has expressed concerns over the upsurge in COVID-19 cases in Southern Africa, for the third week in a row. This is coming as the winter season in the region approaches.  The uptick has broken a two-month-long decline in overall infections recorded across the continent.

In the week ending 8 May 2022, there was a 32% increase in new infections over the week before in the sub-region, which recorded a total of 46,271 new cases.  That, WHO said, is largely driven by the spike in South Africa where weekly recorded cases have quadrupled in the past three weeks. 

“Deaths have, however, not climbed as quickly. South Africa recorded 376 deaths in the past three weeks, twice as many compared with the previous three weeks,” WHO stated.

Similarly, hospitalization rates in South Africa remains low, with the number of patients currently admitted testing positive for COVID-19 at around 20% of the late December 2021 peak. 

The Omicron variant and relaxed public health and social measures are fuelling the surge. Since early April, South Africa alone has recorded 1369 cases of the Omicron sub-variant BA.2, 703 cases of sub-variant BA.4, and 222 cases of sub-variant BA.5. WHO however noted that BA.4 and BA.5 remain the most concerning because they contain the largest number of mutations, and their effects on immunity remain unclear.

“This uptick in cases is an early warning sign which we are closely monitoring. Now is the time for countries to step up preparedness and ensure that they can mount an effective response in the event of a fresh pandemic wave,” said Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response at World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.