Health and Healthcare Systems

Here’s how Africa's youth are changing the health security landscape

Continent-wide initiatives by the African Union seek to improve health security by involving more young Africans.

Continent-wide initiatives by the African Union seek to improve health security by involving more young Africans. Image: DCStudio/Freepik

Shakir Akorede
Digital Communications Consultant, 501 Words
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Just 45.6% of Africans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • And despite having the fastest-growing population, the African continent expects a healthcare worker shortage of 6.1 million people by 2030.
  • Healthcare inequity is a challenge across Africa — but the continent's ambitious and growing young population could hold the solution.

Africa is putting its young people front and centre in continent-wide efforts to advance health security in the post-COVID-19 world.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the extent of Africa’s weak health systems. Now, the continent finds itself lagging in COVID-19 vaccination coverage.

Just 45.6% of Africans are fully vaccinated against the disease. That is unlike the United Kingdom and the United States where 75.4% and 69.2% of the populations have been fully vaccinated, respectively.

Vaccine coverage by African country varies, but is far below Western countries in many states across the continent.
Vaccine coverage by African country varies, but is far below Western countries in many states across the continent. Image: Africa CDC

Rallying young people to improve health security

To accelerate vaccine uptake and delivery on the continent, the African Union and Africa CDC launched a youth vaccination campaign – the Bingwa Initiative – which aims to get vaccinated at least 100 million Africans, including 30 million youth.

In a similar youth-centred approach, Africa’s largest gathering of health professionals, the International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA 2022) hosted by Africa CDC, was preceded by the first youth pre-conference under the theme “Meaningful Youth Engagement for Advancing Sustainable Health Security in Africa.”

The Acting Director of Africa CDC, Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, announced at the conference the creation of a Youth Advisory Team for Health to support the vision of Africa's New Public Health Order. The team will “help ensure that Africa CDC’s strategies and initiatives are inclusive and adequately address young people’s health concerns.”

These initiatives underscore the centrality of the young population in building sustainable health systems in Africa. Besides the limited time available for hitting the 70 million vaccination target, Africa has another set of ambitious goals: the Africa Health Strategy. That’s on top of the New Public Health Order.

As Africa charges forward to leapfrog its health security challenges, youth inclusion must be a key component of the journey.

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Inter-generational dialogue and innovation

Africa is today the leading example of the global demographic shift, with over 65% of the population being young people, expected to make up 42% of global youth by 2030. The needs, perspectives and innovative power of this cohort are crucial in both the formulation and implementation of healthcare initiatives at all levels.

When young experts get the space to take deep dives into the current health systems, they offer new perspectives and solutions. Take, for example, Kerigo Odada, one of the participants at the CPHIA 2022 Youth Pre-Conference, who has spoken on the integration of law in public health discourse on the continent.

On a larger scale, this will usher in new possibilities and innovations by Africa’s young professionals and health-tech founders, as is already happening in Nigeria, The Gambia, Somalia and others.

Young peoples’ views matter, and so too do high-level platforms for engagement where they voice them, such as the CPHIA 2022 “Inter-Generational Dialogue: Envisioning an Inclusive Public Health Future in Africa: Youth and the New Public Health Order.”

Accounting for the youth’s stance and contributions in the heart of Africa’s health discourse improves the chances of inclusive policies being adopted and effectively implemented, bolstering health security.

Inter-generational dialogue also bridges existing knowledge and information gaps among classes of citizens, activating genuine public support and engagement. This is a marked improvement on some previous initiatives, which suffered setbacks as a result of inadequate communication and citizen engagement or, sometimes, over-reliance on engagement models that citizens are unaccustomed to.

Filling the human resource gap

Sustainable health systems are impossible without ample health workers. They are the core component of ensuring adequate service coverage and delivery. Though Africa is the fastest-growing continent on the planet, it also has a severe health personnel shortage — the deficit is projected to reach 6.1 million workers by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.

Strengthening health systems means this shortage must be tackled proactively. Africa’s New Public Health Order calls on governments and partners to strengthen the public health workforce. Meaningful youth engagement is a credible way to achieve that. As young people facilitate reforms in healthcare governance structures and quality improvement, it is crucial that 15% of annual budgets — in line with the Abuja Declaration — is allocated toward health sector resources. This will improve health security for all Africans.

The future of healthcare in Africa depends on innovation and human capital — particularly the young. But to translate the enormous potential of Africa’s young people into concrete results for the New Public Health Order, Africa’s youth must move quickly from backend support systems to more frontend leadership roles.

Youth-centred initiatives by the African Union aid this process by creating platforms for young people to own and take leadership roles in health systems on the continent. With the right opportunities to strengthen their understanding of the geopolitical dynamics, coupled with the politics of global health governance and its implications for Africa, these young leaders will affirm and improve Africa’s own health ecosystem and the continent’s place in the global health architecture.

In sustaining these continental efforts, partnerships within and outside the continent are imperative. Partnerships such as the German Development Cooperation Project on Strengthening Crisis and Pandemic Response in Africa, implemented by the GIZ African Union Office, and support from the World Bank and MasterCard Foundation are critical to building sustainable health systems in Africa.

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