Tackling health poverty risks in Africa: 4 experts weigh in 

There's nobody better suited to lead Africa's health agenda than those that live in its communities.
Image: Unsplash/Benjamin Lehman
  • There is a positive shift towards building sustainable, resilient health systems across the African continent.
  • Investment in the healthcare sector generates economic value.
  • With concerted planning and effective preparation, countries can become more resilient and better positioned to weather health crises.

Africa’s push towards public health autonomy is gaining momentum. With the creation of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Medicines Agency and the proposed African Pandemic Preparedness and Response Authority, governments on the continent are coming together to reduce Africa’s dependency on other countries for its health security.

African nations import over 70% of their medicines, vaccines and other health products. But despite being a net importer of medical products, the continent has shown a level of success in managing disease outbreaks.

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, countries took immediate measures to manage the virus. These early, collaborative and sustained efforts were effective. According to latest World Health Organization figures, less than 300,000 Africans have died from COVID-19, compared to early projections that millions would succumb.

Much of this success was drawn from the Africa’s previous experience with Ebola. Lessons learned from Nigeria’s 2014 outbreak stemmed the spread of the disease in subsequent outbreaks, most recently in Uganda.

Looking ahead, African governments need to focus on strengthening their public health institutions to support rapid and effective responses to disease threats and outbreaks. There is scope for governments to leverage public/private partnerships to create robust health systems based on data-driven interventions.

We asked four healthcare professionals with footprints in the African space to share their thoughts on what the future could look like, with particular emphasis on the steps governments in partnership with the private sector need to make to take charge of Africa’s health agenda and overcome its health poverty risks.

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'Making the world a healthier place is a collective endeavour'

Angela Wasunna, VP, Global Policy, Emerging Markets, Pfizer

Communities are the most important stakeholders in improving public health. There's nobody better suited to deliver on the needs of Africa’s communities and lead its health agenda than those that live in those communities. At Pfizer, we're proud to support and partner with African and global leaders in our commitment to improving access, outcomes, and innovation.

Pfizer did just that when we stood alongside leadership from Rwanda, Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, and Uganda to launch An Accord for a Healthier World in May 2022. The Accord aims to increase access to healthcare innovation for 1.2 billion people by enabling access to our medicines and vaccines and by working alongside governments and multi-sector leaders to co-create scalable solutions to address system-level barriers that limit or prevent those medicines from reaching patients in need.

Since launch, we’ve made progress across accord countries, but I’ll use Rwanda as an example. We’ve delivered more than 1,500 courses of medicines and vaccines to the country, and partnered with the government to train health workers to administer them. In December, we proudly deployed the first Global Health Team to Rwanda to provide the Ministry of Health with on-the-ground technical assistance for supply chain optimization.

Whether it’s addressing the health needs of today or preparing for tomorrow, making the world a healthier place is a collective endeavour. That’s why it’s critical for private sector organizations, NGOs, multilaterals, and others to collaborate with African leaders in making health equity a reality.

'Public-private partnerships are essential to drive investments in high-quality healthcare'

Lutz Hegemann, President, Global Health and Sustainability, Novartis

The increased autonomy of the Africa CDC, paired with the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), represents a positive shift towards building sustainable, resilient health systems across the African continent. With the challenges it faces, partnerships and collaboration will be critical to ensure that patient-centric policies and approaches can be adopted to support the broadest accessibility of medicines. Novartis supports regional and country capacity-building, acting as a catalyst towards sustainability by providing time, expertise and financial support.

Access to quality care and medicines is a key barrier for people living in poverty. Public-private partnerships are essential to driving investments in high-quality healthcare, medicines, services and innovations required to build resilient and equitable health systems.

The Africa Medical Supplies Platform is an encouraging example of the potential to facilitate greater economies of scale, simplify logistics and reduce mark-ups across the distribution chain – inevitably lowering costs for healthcare systems and broadening access to patients.

New voluntary licensing mechanisms should be explored, for the treatment of non-communicable diseases, which are growing in prevalence across the continent, such as the Novartis and Medicines Patent Pool partnership (as part of the Access to Oncology Medicines Coalition) to increase access to nilotinib for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia – the first agreement of its kind for a cancer medicine.

'Investment in healthcare can have a significant positive impact on a country’s economy'

Alexandre de Carvalho, General Manager, IQVIA

The health industry can accelerate the deployment of health information systems, health data management and analytics, as key drivers of health systems strengthening. Some pioneer organizations are paving the way with patient-centric “inclusive business” solutions that aim to cover the unmet needs of vulnerable populations across the patient journey, from prevention to treatment adherence in LMICs.

This trend has been largely accelerated recently with the emergence of connectivity and digital solutions even in remote environments.

While only a few reached sustainability and scale, their innovations show high promise and potential, e.g. with highly efficient/digitalized operating theatres and telemedicine facilitating access for rural patients, Indian multi-speciality hospitals manage to perform three to four times as many surgical procedures than their US counterparts.

Corporates and development funds are developing collaborations and providing financial and technical support to these pioneers to accelerate their growth. Healthcare industry, donors and DFIs can learn from these pioneers and support scale-up in Africa of the most relevant innovation.

The health industry can also accelerate the deployment of health information systems, health data management and analytics, as key drivers of health systems strengthening. Along with donors and continental/regional institutions, national/pan-African digital health plans can be useful in leveraging significant economies of scale.

Investment in the healthcare sector generates economic value. By developing human capital, countries can increase the productivity of their citizens, thus making a positive contribution to economic growth. Ultimately, the implementation of universal healthcare is the cornerstone of any healthcare system and a boon for national growth and development.

'With concerted planning and effective preparation, countries can become more resilient'

Priya Basu, Executive Head, The Pandemic Fund Secretariat

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare a host of structural inequities across social, economic, political and geographic lines. It underscored the lack of pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (PPR) capacity, particularly in low-income countries, the majority of which are in Africa, and highlighted the urgent need to step up investments in PPR. Every dollar we invest now in strengthening PPR will save lives and reduce financial costs for the world for the years to come.

To institutionalize capacity to respond, the World Bank, working together with the founding donors, the WHO, Civil Society Organizations and other stakeholders, has established the Pandemic Fund: an innovative addition to the global health financing landscape. It represents the first such multilateral funding mechanism dedicated to financing critical investments to strengthen health systems and PPR capacities at national, regional, and global levels, with a focus on low- and middle-income countries, in a sustained manner.

At the country level, critical needs include building disease surveillance capacity; laboratories; public health workforce capacities; emergency communication, coordination and management; and community engagement. Support to building regional and global capacity for PPR will cut across multiple domains, including data-sharing, regulatory harmonization, regional public health workforce capacity, and capacity for coordinated development, procurement, distribution and deployment of vaccines and other countermeasures and essential medical supplies

Though still in its infancy, the Pandemic Fund holds both potential and promise. With seeded capital of $1.6 billion from 25 donor governments and philanthropies, the fund is designed to work through existing institutions engaged in PPR financing, complementing their financing, and drawing on their comparative advantages. It seeks to catalyze external financing and incentivize countries to prioritize PPR and increase their own efforts.

The Pandemic Fund will soon launch its First Call for Proposals designed to support three areas of focus: surveillance, national laboratory systems and health human resources. In the spirit of encouraging countries to chart their own health pathways, the fund adopts an inclusive and country-driven approach.

The Pandemic Fund exists as a reminder that with concerted planning and effective preparation, countries can become more resilient and better positioned to weather the onset of the next pandemic when it arises, contributing to a healthier, safer and more secure world.

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