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Health and Healthcare

How unleashing the power of data will provide health security for Africa's displaced

Africa accommodates a third of the global refugee population.

Africa accommodates a third of the global refugee population. Image: Reuters/James Akena

Elmer Aluge
Global Shaper, Abuja Hub, Nigeria
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  • Africa accommodates a third of the global refugee population, which makes up 40.4 million people or 3.1% of its total populace.
  • Amidst the challenges this raises, there has been a glimmer of hope in the development of digital health information systems.
  • Harnessing credible data empowers stakeholders with the tools to support vulnerable African communities for inclusive healthcare development.

Africa, a continent on the rise, is grappling with a significant impediment to its progress: the escalating number of displaced individuals.

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies highlights that the continent accommodates a third of the global refugee population, translating to 40.4 million or 3.1% of its total populace. This figure, which has surged over the past five years, represents not just numbers but the profound human impact of displacement.

In 2016, Uganda faced a daunting challenge with the massive influx of refugees from South Sudan. This situation led to the creation of the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. With its rapid growth to accommodate more than 270,000 inhabitants, it soon became one of the world's most extensive refugee settlements.

Amidst these challenges, a ray of hope emerged in the form of a digital health information system. This system – a result of a collaborative effort between the Ugandan government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and private sector partners – enabled real-time data collection on various health aspects. This innovation paved the way for more targeted and effective health interventions.

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Shifting our focus to Kenya, we find a similar narrative of resilience and innovation. Dadaab, a vast refugee camp, has been a sanctuary for Somali refugees since the early 1990s. Over time, the camp has witnessed numerous cholera outbreaks.

However, a groundbreaking partnership in 2017 led to the development of a mobile app that allowed health workers to report cholera cases in real time. This innovative approach significantly reduced the spread and impact of the disease.

While these stories from Uganda and Kenya underscore the transformative power of data and collaboration in addressing health challenges, it's crucial to recognize that dangerous gaps still exist.

In Nigeria, the protracted conflict with Boko Haram has led to the displacement of millions. Many of these displaced individuals find refuge in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where unregulated health challenges, such as the pressing threat of human papillomavirus (HPV), persist.

This situation serves as a stark reminder that, despite the strides made, there's still much ground to cover. The need for comprehensive data collection and health surveillance remains paramount, especially during crisis periods in densely populated camps vulnerable to disease outbreaks, as seen during major outbreaks like COVID-19 and Lassa fever. Bottom of Form

Displacement is the silent crisis in health security

While Africa confronts the immense challenge of displacement, an underlying issue persists; the absence of timely and comprehensive data on disease outbreaks within IDP camps.

Displacement population compiled from UNHCR showing sources and population size
Displacement population compiled from UNHCR showing sources and population size. Image: Elmer Aluge

Data discrepancies can arise when agencies report divergent figures for the same regions and periods, creating potential overlaps or gaps in our assessment.

The data's timeliness is another concern. Some regions benefit from current statistics, while others rely on dated information, impeding real-time planning.

Notably, until 2017, real-time data was scarce. An analysis from that year unveiled numerous outbreaks in refugee camps across Africa, with diseases like measles, cholera, and meningitis accounting for 75% of these. Yet, independent data sources for Kenya and Chad did not report that 70% of these outbreaks were actually from there. This shortfall not only affects our comprehension but also obstructs effective interventions.

The graphic above also highlights the lack of detailed demographic data. Without insights into age, gender, and other demographics, tailoring specialized interventions becomes arduous.

Specific groups, such as the elderly or pregnant women, risk being overlooked. The gendered health equity gap further exacerbates the situation, with women and girls in displacement settings facing unique health challenges.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the vulnerabilities of these communities, with IDP camps becoming potential virus hotspots due to their living conditions and limited healthcare access. This crisis accentuated the broader health security implications in these settings and the pressing need for accurate data.

Investing in a health data-centric future

For forward-thinking investors, policymakers, and private sector innovators, the challenges faced by IDP camps represent not just hurdles, but transformative opportunities that align with the aspirations of the Africa Union Agenda 2063.

The recent agreement between GAVI the Vaccine Alliance and several African countries to roll out malaria vaccinations is a testament to the potential of collaborative health initiatives. However, to address the data gaps and health surveillance challenges we've identified, there's a pressing need to innovate beyond traditional frameworks.

Private sector involvement, backed by angel investors and seed funders, can revolutionize the health infrastructure in IDP camps. Their expertise in technology, logistics and data management can bridge the existing surveillance gaps, ensuring real-time monitoring and swift interventions.

Moreover, these collaborations can lead to the development of sustainable health solutions tailored for IDP camps, reducing dependence on external aid and fostering self-reliance.

Such private sector-led initiatives not only offer returns on investment but also align with the broader goals of universal health coverage and the Africa Unions Agenda 2063's vision of an Africa driven by its own citizens. By investing in health solutions for IDP camps, businesses can tap into a largely unexplored market, ensuring both social impact and economic gains.

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While African countries grapple with contending priorities, the involvement of the private sector can alleviate some of the financial burdens. This is not about sidelining governments but about fostering partnerships that capitalize on the strengths of both public and private entities.

Agenda 2063's Aspiration 6 envisions an “Africa whose development is people-driven". In line with this, our interventions in IDP camps must be gender-sensitive, addressing the unique challenges faced by women and girls. The GAVI initiative, while crucial, is just one piece of the puzzle. Comprehensive solutions will emerge from collaborations that harness the strengths of governments, international organizations and the private sector.

The health security of Africa's displaced communities requires action from champions who must create innovative health solutions today and not tomorrow.

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