Conference underscores urgent need for new Public Health Order in Africa

The first international Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA2021) hosted by the African Union (AU) and Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) ended on Friday, with a call for urgent new Public Health Order on the continent.

The three days conference focused on the need to address long-standing health challenges on the continent, including vaccine inequity and weak health systems.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that over 140 African policymakers, scientists, public health experts, data experts and civil society representatives presented the latest exploits and research from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as actions needed to better guard against current and future health crises.

During the opening ceremony, speakers reflected on the impact of COVID-19 in Africa in the past two years and lessons learnt. 

The Chairperson of the AU Commission, Mr Moussa Faki Mahamat, who said that the devastating effects of COVID-19 pushed
health systems to the limits, added that “the inaugural conference happened at an important time in history.

“But we have great hopes for the future, and a historic opportunity to build a New Public Health Order that can effectively guard against future health crises. This conference is the first step in making this a reality.  

The AU New Public Health Order calls for continental collaboration to bolster Africa’s vaccines manufacturing capacity, diagnostics and therapeutics; strengthen public health institutions for people-centred care and expand the public health workforce.

The new order is also to establish respectful, action-oriented partnerships and engage with the private sector to meet the aspirations of  the Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want.

According to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and AU Champion for Domestic Health Financing, there is need for renewed commitments by governments and national parliaments to increase domestic financing for health in Africa.

Kagame said that this had been a priority of the African Union for several years, but progress had not been fast enough, noting that “the continent cannot continue to rely on external funding for something so important to our future.

“We need to invest more in national health systems. The ability to implement critical health programmes, including regular mass vaccination campaigns depends on the quality of national health services and the trust the public has in them.”

Dr John Nkengasong, the Director of the Africa CDC, said “maybe the Ebola outbreak of 2014 to 2016 was a call to action that something bigger was to come. And maybe COVID-19 is the signal that something even bigger will come. So, we must be prepared and take our health security destiny into our own hands.”

Nkengasong added that it meant that the continent must fight the next pandemic in a way that was unparalleled to the way the continent was fighting the pandemic, saying he was convinced that the continent would do that given the mobilisation, commitment and investments currently going on.

The CPHIA2021 opening ceremony was followed by a plenary discussion on the epidemiology of SARS-COV-2,  where Prof. Salim Abdool Karim, the Director of the Centre for AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), explained the COVID-19 Omicron variant’s trajectory in South Africa.

Karim, who was among those leading research into the Omicron variant in South Africa, emphasised the need to continue trusting and implementing strong public health interventions on the continent.

He said “there is no need to panic. We’ve dealt with variants before, including those with immune escape. Closing borders has almost no benefit. Public health systems work, public interventions like mask and social distancing work. Let’s use them.”

Other presenters featured included Prof. Penny Moore, a Virologist at University of Witwatersrand and Prof. Ibrahim Abubakar, the Dean, Faculty of Population Health Sciences, University College, London.

Prof. Moore said “real time phenotypic assessments of emerging variants in Africa is essential, particularly in the continuing context of under vaccination and in some places high levels of HIV. The rapid pivot of SARSCov-2 was enabled by strong existing platforms and collaborations, most of which have been developed over 20 years.”

Prof. Abubakar noted that “we need greater investment in health systems and national economies. It’s only through that, that people will not ban us when we detect new variants, while not giving us access to the relevant technologies.”

The second day of the CPHIA 2021 Conference put spotlight on COVID-19 impact on vaccination and health systems in Africa, with speakers addressing lessons learned from implementation of policies and the latest in COVID-19 vaccine research and manufacturing capacity.

One of the sessions featured remarks from Prof. Petro Terblanche, the Managing Director, Afrigen Biologics based in South Africa and part of the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub.

He said “I have immense support for waivers and other instruments to give us access to vaccine Intellectual Property.

“Intellectual Property should not be a barrier, it should be an enabler, and when needed, it must be made accessible to benefit the public. We need voluntary licences to exercise our freedom to operate in low and middle income countries.

“Working with partners, we can ensure that voluntary licencing remains at the top of every vaccine manufacturing discussion,” Terblanche said.

A special session on day two focused on recent advances in the development of oral drugs for COVID-19 as Dr Julie Louise Gerberding, the Managing Director, MPH and Chief Patient Officer and Executive Vice President, Merck, said Africa was blessed that science was on its side, and the continent had innovative countermeasures like vaccines, diagnostics, antivirals, and immunologics.

Louise, however, said “we have to stare at the global social determinants of health in the face to move the needle on health equity.”

NAN recalls that on day three, speakers spoke about the state of Africa’s preparedness to tackle COVID-19 and other public health emergencies, as well as digital solutions to support an effective public health response.

During the final plenary, presenters focused on how to adapt a cross-sector approach to achieving Agenda 2063.

Following this year’s success, organisers announced plans for the next CPHIA to be hosted in Rwanda on
Dec. 13 – 15, 2022. (NAN)