WHO Advocates Prevention Focus in Africa
Fighting Disease
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the opening of the 72nd session of the Regional Committee for Africa

African nations need to pivot to prevention in their fight against disease by “addressing its root causes” through a greater focus on improved diets, healthier environments, and better road safety, among other factors, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the 72nd WHO Regional Committee for Africa meeting, at the opening of the weeklong session of member states in Togo’s capital Lomé.

Tedros also pledged WHO’s continued support for the work of the African Centers of Disease Control (Africa CDC) in remarks aimed at squelching tensions between the two agencies that emerged earlier this summer. Africa CDC began circulating a proposal for it to be empowered by the African Union to declare continental health emergencies, something WHO reportedly opposed.

The Fuss Over Who Should Declare Public Health Emergencies in Africa

This week’s meeting of African health ministers and government officials is supposed to focus on ways to lower the burden of disease, strengthen capacity and endorse strategies in fighting disease and promoting access to health services and people’s well-being.

It also is looking at how the continent can improve prevention and battle COVID-19 and a growing number of other health challenges from outbreaks of communicable diseases, conflicts and humanitarian crises, climatic change and chronic diseases.

“Realizing our vision for the highest attainable standard of health starts not in the clinic or the hospital, but in schools, streets, supermarkets, households and cities,” Tedros told the meeting. It was his first major appearance since he formally began his second five-term at the helm of the 194-nation UN health agency a week ago.

“Much of the work that you do as ministries of health is dealing with the consequences of poor diets, polluted environments, unsafe roads and workplaces, inadequate health literacy, and the aggressive marketing of products that harm health,” he said.

“That’s why,” Tedros said, “we are calling on all member states to make an urgent paradigm shift, towards promoting health and well-being and preventing disease by addressing its root causes, and creating the conditions for health to thrive.”

Pledging support for Africa CDC and the African Medicines Agency

Tedros also pledged WHO’s continued financial and technical support  Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) – noting that he had in fact helped birth the agency with a proposal for its creation at an African Union summit in July 2013 when he was Ethiopia’s foreign minister.

“So, Africa CDC is my daughter, and not only me, but WHO and our regional office, all of us, will do everything to strengthen it. The strengthen of continental institutions is very important to the advancement of health and other sectors in our continent,” he said.

“In the same way,” he added, “we are also continuing to provide technical and financial support to the African Medicines Agency (AMA), to support greater regulatory capacity on the continent,” he added, of the new medicines agency that is supposed to help facilitate the more rapid and harmonized approval of new drugs and vaccines across Africa.

Cessouma Minata Samate, AU’s Commissioner for Health, Humanitarian Affairs, and Social Development, at the opening ceremony of the 72nd session of the Regional Committee for Africa

Last month, Health Policy Watch reported that the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) selected Rwanda to host the headquarters of the African Medicines Agency.

Cessouma Minata Samate, AU’s Commissioner for Health, Humanitarian Affairs, and Social Development, said the AMA also aims to support the production of medicines on the African continent. 

“Through this agency, we are going to build the regulatory capacity of member states of the African Union and the regional economic community,” she said.

While congratulating the government of Rwanda for being selected to host AMA’s headquarters, she urged the country to ensure the agency becomes operational as soon as possible. See our special coverage of the development of the AMA here

African Medicines Agency Countdown

From prevention to battling inequity

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, noted the COVID-19 pandemic showed just how important it is for African countries to invest in health care and fighting diseases.

In Africa last year, 22 million jobs were lost and 30 million more people were added to the ranks of extreme poverty, which is defined by the World Bank as living on less than US$1.90 a day.

With things expected to continue this way into next year, she said, “these statistics make the case for investment in health very clear.”

Inequity is a key factor impeding Africa’s health progress, according to Moeti, whether it is the lack of tools needed for prevention and responses to pandemics or the high out-of-pocket payments that prevent people from seeking health care when they need it.

Moeti expressed continued WHO concern about the continent’s comparatively lower COVID-19 vaccination rate despite the recent availability of large quantities of doses.  She said it puts health and jobs at unnecessary risk while opening the door to the emergence of new, potentially dangerous variants of the virus. 

“A fresh impetus to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine uptake is imperative, especially to safeguard our most vulnerable,” she said.

Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé at the opening ceremony of the 72nd session of the Regional Committee for Africa

Togo eradicates four NTDs while fighting disease

A highlight of the opening ceremony was the recognition of Togo’s efforts at disease prevention including the eradication of four neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

“The liberation of Togo from Dracunculiasis (Guinea-worm disease), Human African Trypanosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis and trachoma is a stunning achievement that will free many people from the threat of these devastating diseases,” Tedros said.

“I also congratulate you,” he added,” “for the progress you have made in improving the management and efficiency of hospitals, and for increasing access to services for the population.”

Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé said health is at the center of his government’s development — and is a priority for social cohesion.

He described Togo’s relationship with WHO as one that has transcended beyond institutional cooperation and is now a genuine partnership that supports Togo’s health systems, helping to coordinate emergency responses and to raise vaccine equity. 

“It is a partnership that guides us — learning from current crises with a view to sustainable, equitable and sound solutions,” he said.

Image Credits: WHO.

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.