Abbott’s vice president for Infectious Disease, Emerging Markets, and Rapid Diagnostics Damian P. Halloran spoke to Njiraini Muchira on the company’s focus on East Africa.
Why is it for East Africa to prioritise universal healthcare?
Throughout history the great advances in healthcare happen at the primary level and our technologies are suited to that environment.
A proper test for malaria for example is vital in tackling the disease. In Rwanda the government has done a great job in decentralisation.
Their vision is that no one should be more than 30 minutes from a health facility is commendable. Our role is to build capabilities and provide technologies for testing and treating key populations like pregnant women and children.
How can governments deal with infectious diseases like malaria when partners like the Global Fund are cutting funding?
Governments and partners must look at the health economics of diseases like malaria. Malaria is the biggest cause of absenteeism in Africa, something that damages the economies because of lost productivity of employees.
Impacts are also felt in families and within communities. The ability to translate the health impacts of malaria, not just the mortality rate but also the lost productivity should make governments understand that by investing in malaria fight they save.
How important is public private partnerships in pushing the health agenda?
I am a member of President Donald Trump Advisory Board on doing business in Africa and I will passionately represent Africa specifically for public private partnerships (PPPs) activities to drive decentralised healthcare because the journey to universal health and public health requires the next phase of maturity of PPPs.
We are very enthusiastic about the potential of truly creating PPPs like we are doing in Rwanda and Uganda.
There are opportunities to ensure the health outcome benefits of bringing new and better technologies to markets. PPPs can help countries in Africa build better standards of healthcare. For us, we are excited about the capabilities and the technologies we have because they are suited for Africa.
The cost of healthcare in Africa is quite high and private companies contribute to this state of affairs. Are companies profiteering at the expense of patients?
The question of accessibility and affordability is always going to be a challenge in emerging markets.
Often times we look today and think the world is worst that it used to be. The evolution of health across the world is getting better and better.
One of the great emerging powers of the future is Africa. Yes, there is always a challenge of high costs but our goal is to provide the technologies that enables better access and affordability.
We are a private company and have to find the right path but by proving quality products and solutions the outcome really works. Sometimes people think cheaper is great but quality always wins when you dealing with people’s health. We have to be cost competitive and deliver quality products.
Kenya and other Africa countries are shifting focus towards dealing with chronic diseases like cancer and putting infectious disease to the back burner. Please comment.
This emerging scenario is like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It depends on what is the highest level of priority based on the evolution of epidemiology. The role we play as providers of tests and technology is to enable countries to get to elimination of infectious diseases.
After eradication, countries can truly move on to some of the non-communicable diseases. There is a lot of discussion around cancer, diabetes and certain respiratory illnesses but countries need to resolve the fundamental ones like HIV, malaria and hepatitis.
Viral hepatitis for instance is one of the secret killers in Africa yet it has not gathered the same level of focus like HIV and malaria. Countries need to find the right balance in the kind of life cycle of epidemic control, management and ultimately elimination.
What informed Abbott’s decision to open a regional office in Nairobi?
Abbott has operated in Africa for years through distributors. The Nairobi office is the second on the continent after South Africa and it is a clear statement of intent.
This is a great time to invest because of the maturity of the countries in East Africa, a great time to be on the ground and help work on the next phase of growth. We see Nairobi as the gateway and focal point as a regional head for our business.
What should the region expect?
Abbott is a broad-based healthcare company. Our products and services support public health and particularly in emerging markets and regions like Africa where the evolution of the standards of care makes such a difference because 60 per cent of Africans live in rural areas and healthcare is decentralised.
We have four business units namely nutritional, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics. These gives us a holistic approach to healthcare and enables us to partner and support governments in the region in the rollout of universal healthcare.
What difference do you intend to make in East Africa’s health sector?
We understand that to be successful as a private partner in Africa we need to be on the ground everyday by having a physical presence working with communities.
In healthcare, it is not about the product but the solution. The role of education, sustainability, training and connectivity are equally as important as test because it enables the ability to administer quality healthcare key of which is quality of the tests, quality of the person doing the test and quality of the data and the interventions and treatment.
Connectivity is critical because it is one of the biggest enabler of decentralised healthcare because of tele-doctors.
How can Abbott help the region deal with Ebola?
There is a lot of concern on Ebola across the region. We talk to governments because we can provide capabilities on areas like border control, refugee screening and protection.
On disease outbreak, one of the most critical thing is to work with countries to be able to ring fence, test, treat and create a surveillance systems to be able to identified risks at the right time. We can provide the testing capabilities as quickly as possible for 10 group of neglected tropical diseases.