Autonomous Africa CDC a game-changer on disease outbreak response: Experts

Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention will now be in a position to assess disease outbreaks on the continent and declare it an emergency if it’s beyond one country

By Tony Malesi
Published: Monday 09 January 2023
The COVID-19 pandemic across the continent exposed Africa’s capacity challenge, which a well-funded autonomous Africa CDC will mitigate. Photo: WHO.__

Plans are at an advanced stage to formally make the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) operations autonomous from the African Union Commission (AU).

The AU said the move is meant to make CDC more authoritative and eliminate unnecessary protocols and regulations that sometimes drag its operations.

Also read: Uganda declares Ebola outbreak after 1 person dies of rare Sudan strain

Concerns have been raised with health experts and stakeholders, including ordinary Africans, complaining about the poor response to disease outbreaks and climate change-induced health emergencies.

“We have worked around the clock to make this a reality. We have set up new administrative and support systems, including human resource, procurement and finance that are independent of the African Union Commission,” said Acting Director Ahmed Ogwell Ouma during a press briefing.

A few key steps are remaining for Africa CDC to fully operationalise the newfound freedom early this year, Ouma added.

African presidents amended Africa CDC’s statute late last year, allowing the body to transition into an independent continental public health agency instead of a specialised institution largely weighed down by unnecessary bureaucracy under AU.

Stakeholders, including practitioners and experts in the health sector, have welcomed the move.

AU is “too busy and overburdened by other major operations like hunger response, peace and security initiatives to give healthcare maximum attention,” said experts.

Also read: TB is once again the deadliest disease in Africa — what went wrong

Africa CDC’s operational autonomy is a major milestone for the continent and global health security. This, especially at a time diseases have increasingly become international security threats, Ouma said. He added that Africa now has direct control of its healthcare agenda. 

Despite initial objections and a push to limit Africa CDC’s powers, especially the mandate to declare and coordinate health emergencies, the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for Africa has welcomed the move and ongoing final discussions

Ordinarily, countries can make declarations regarding disease outbreaks within their borders, while WHO is mandated to declare international public health emergencies. There, however, has been a gap regarding who is supposed to declare continental emergencies. 

While formulating Africa CDC’s new mandate and revising its statute in a meeting in Zambia mid last year, the AU executive council granted the body the power to declare continental emergencies.

Africa CDC will now be in a position to assess disease outbreaks on the continent and declare it an emergency if it’s beyond one country, said Ouma.

“We take this responsibility and authority with a lot of seriousness and sensitivity to avoid the continent lagging behind in terms of health crisis response,” he added.

Also read: African health ministers adopt PEN-PLUS strategy against non-communicable diseases

Ouma said such declarations will now be made in collaboration with WHO and other stakeholders, with detailed information regarding the emergency directly shared with heads of state rather than through the AU as has been tradition.

Moses Masika, a global health and infectious disease specialist, welcomed the move while noting that Africa CDC cannot afford to completely delink itself from AU. Still, he said greater autonomy allows it to take action faster and more efficiently.

The move is a significant milestone in helping the continental body build capacity, which is critical in protecting lives in Africa, said the specialist, who is also a lecturer at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Nairobi.

The main role of Africa CDC is to strengthen the continent’s capacity for outbreak preparedness and response, Masika said.

“Autonomy will enable the body to put in place the structures and people required to execute their core mandate especially in disease prevention and surveillance, and coordinate any response across the continent,” he added.

Making Africa CDC’s operations independent of AU is a step in the right direction, said the scholar, who also doubles up as a research scientist on emerging infections and antimicrobial resistance.

It gives the body autonomy to seek more funds from strategic and special interest partners and the ability to make decisions and take action promptly without the delays that would be occasioned by bureaucracy at the AU, he said.

Masika said

The enhanced capacity at Africa CDC will allow them to pursue and nurture relationships with national ministries of health, development and strategic partners like the WHO, Chinese CDC, the US CDC and the European CDC, among others. Such partnerships will provide the networks and resources needed to operate effectively.

He added that the realisation of the newfound autonomy is long overdue, especially after recent epidemics and pandemics exposed the continent’s weaknesses in responding to health emergencies and crises.

This is a great move, particularly after the suboptimal response to Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2016, said Masika.

“The COVID-19 pandemic across the continent exposed Africa’s capacity challenge, which a well-funded autonomous Africa CDC will mitigate,” added Masika.

He warned that despite the independence, Africa CDC still needs a close working relationship with the AU to enable it to get political goodwill in various circumstances.

“Africa CDC will still need to rely on the might and networks of AU in, for instance, accessing special national data and information on various diseases from the 54 states across Africa because of the trust and confidence the continental body enjoys from member states,” said Masika.

The mainstream view from stakeholders in the health fraternity is that autonomy will help Africa CDC strengthen the capacity and capability of the continent’s public health institutions.

The move, some said, will bolster research and processing of new knowledge on how to prevent or manage diseases.

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