Q&A: Africa CDC’s Tshangela speaks on preparedness for disease outbreaks
The Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) is a vital continental health agency established by the African Union to support public health initiatives of Member States.
Its mission is to enhance the capacity of public health institutions in Africa to detect, prevent, control, and respond effectively to disease threats.
In an exclusive interview with Radio Tamazuj, Ms. Akhona Tshangela, the Program Coordinator for Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) at the Africa CDC, who is co-leading the CPHIA 2023 track on “Fostering African-led Innovation: Advancing Local Production in Vaccines, Diagnostics and Therapeutics” talked about Africa’s readiness to combat disease outbreaks.
Below are edited excerpts:
Q: Ms. Akhona, could you please provide an overview of Africa CDC’s response to diseases on the continent?
A: Certainly. Africa CDC's inception dates back to 2013 when African Union Member States recognized the need for a dedicated agency to efficiently respond to public health threats in the region. The catalyst for its establishment was the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015. Africa CDC officially came into being in January 2017. We primarily focus on strengthening the health systems of Member States, ensuring their public health institutions can effectively respond to threats, and providing workforce development through training in areas like infection prevention and control, emergency operations centres, and surveillance, among others.
Q: What criteria guided the establishment of Africa CDC and its approach to research in Africa?
A: The establishment of Africa CDC was long overdue, given the continent's substantial burden of infectious diseases. Africans are best equipped to understand the unique socio-economic and health system needs of the population. With 55 Member States, Africa needed an agency capable of swiftly responding to outbreaks without relying on external support. Our criteria were based on the imperative need for a continental response to address Africa's health challenges.
Q: Does Africa have the human resources to handle pandemics and epidemics effectively?
A: Absolutely. Africa has demonstrated its capabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, where collective efforts and the development of a continental strategy proved highly effective. While there are areas requiring improvement, we are well-positioned due to our experience in managing a high burden of infectious diseases.
Q: How does instability in African countries impact their ability to respond to health emergencies?
A: Instability can significantly impede health system responses, leading to increased mortality rates. In unstable environments, accessing healthcare becomes difficult, and the delivery of essential services is hindered. Instability can indeed hamper response efforts.
Q: Could you elaborate on Africa CDC’s plans for establishing a laboratory and its policies regarding vaccine manufacturing for the continent?
A: Africa CDC has set up a BSL-3 laboratory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to enhance our understanding of diseases and support research. While we do not manufacture vaccines ourselves, our Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) initiative focuses on coordinating and advocating for regional vaccine manufacturing. We aim to ensure Africa becomes self-sufficient in vaccine production to respond rapidly to pandemics.
Q: How does Africa CDC support resource-poor countries like Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in building the capacity of their medical professionals?
A: Africa CDC supports Member States by helping them establish or strengthen their national public health institutions, providing workforce development through training, promoting digitization of health systems, and improving laboratory capabilities. While these efforts may not be directly in South Sudan and Sudan, they contribute to the overall preparedness of all African countries.
Q: Can you explain how Africa CDC addresses the potential impact of natural resource exploitation on disease outbreaks, especially in regions like South Sudan?
A: We need to examine whether there is a causal link between natural resource exploitation and diseases, such as the birth defects you mentioned in South Sudan. As epidemiologists, we require robust evidence to establish correlations and causations. If there is a genuine connection, it will guide our response and policy recommendations.
Q: How does Africa CDC collect and utilize data from the 55 African countries to address diseases effectively?
A: Data collection is a significant challenge for Africa CDC. We have data-sharing agreements with Member States to obtain necessary information. When outbreaks occur, we may retrospectively collect data through surveys. Our goal is to analyse this data to understand the root causes of events and develop effective solutions.
Q: Does Africa CDC have the resources to conduct research and gather data effectively?
A: Yes, Africa CDC conducts research, including epidemiological studies and clinical trials. We have a dedicated Science Office for research and development. While resource availability varies, we prioritize data collection and analysis to inform our response efforts.
Q: What factors contributed to the delay in establishing Africa CDC as a continental health agency?
A: One contributing factor is the historical challenge of prioritizing health funding in Africa. Despite commitments to allocate 15% of GDP to health, only a few countries have met this target. Additionally, diseases have been on the rise in Africa, making the establishment of the Africa CDC long overdue. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa served as a catalyst, highlighting the need for such an organization.
Q: Could you tell us about Africa CDC’s efforts in vaccine manufacturing and the first vaccines it aims to produce?
A: Africa CDC’s role is not vaccine manufacturing but coordination and advocacy for African regional vaccine manufacturing. We aim to support African manufacturers and governments to ensure self-sufficiency in vaccine production. While we do not manufacture vaccines ourselves, we are actively engaged in creating an ecosystem for sustainable vaccine manufacturing in Africa.
Q: Is Africa CDC prepared to respond to emergencies in countries like Mali, Gabon, or Sudan?
A: Africa CDC has demonstrated its ability to respond effectively to emergencies through mechanisms like the African Volunteers Health Cooperation. We maintain a network of rapid responders who can be deployed to address threats, even in unstable environments. We are committed to providing the necessary support when needed.
Q: As we conclude, what is your final message to our audience?
A: We must prioritize health issues in Africa, allocate more funding to health, and invest in infrastructure, workforce development, and data collection. Local manufacturing, domestic financing, and strong partnerships are essential. Africa is moving towards self-sufficiency in healthcare, and we have the potential to achieve great things in the near future.
Q: Lastly, what has been the main challenge facing Africa CDC in its mission?
A: One of our main challenges is the need for Member States to allocate more funding to health. Additionally, data collection remains a significant obstacle. Having the right data is crucial for informed decision-making and response efforts. We need more resources and training to enhance data collection capabilities in Africa. It was a pleasure to discuss our efforts, and I hope this information helps raise awareness about our mission. Thank you very much.