African heads of state and government have made a historic decision to elevate Africa centres for disease control and prevention (AfricaCDC) status to an autonomous health agency of the African Union (AU).
At the ongoing 35th ordinary session of the assembly of heads of state and government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the agency was given full powers to operate autonomously.
This independence means that among other things, AfricaCDC will now have the legal, institutional, and operational autonomy to, for instance, serve as a channel to mobilise financing to build the necessary capabilities and to acquire vital continental assets for disease prevention and control.
“At the AU Summit 2022, heads of state and government have made a historic decision to elevate AfricaCDC status to an autonomous health agency of the AU…,” John Nkengasong, Director of AfricaCDC posted on Twitter Sunday evening.
Until now, the agency was subsumed within the African Union commission operating under the commissioner for social affairs making it difficult to make decisions in case there is a need for an urgent response of deployment of resources to fight disease.
“This also indicates the growing importance of health with the Africa Union,” said Dr Githinji Gitahi, The group CEO at Amref health Africa.
The agency will also be able to strengthen national health systems in Africa, which began during the Covid-19, by training and building capacity throughout the continent improving on the calibre of public health assets and personnel.
It will be funded by the AU as an independent entity and the position of director will be upgraded to that of director-general who will be equitable to a Commissioner.
AfricaCDC is a specialised technical institution of the AU established to offer coordinated support to public health initiatives of member states and strengthen the capacity of their public health institutions to detect, prevent, control, and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats.
Nestled within the African Union, the public health agency was established five years ago in 2017 in the aftermath of West Africa’s 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak that infected over 28,000 people, of whom 11,000 died. The outbreak highlighted the critical need for a continental entity for disease prevention, surveillance, and response.
Some of the concerns that justified the establishment and initiation of an Africa-wide public health agency include rapid population growth; increasing and intensive population movement across Africa, with increased potential for new or re-emerging pathogens to turn into pandemics; existing endemic and emerging infectious diseases, including Ebola; antimicrobial resistance; increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases and injuries; high maternal mortality rates; and threats posed by environmental toxins, wrote Dr Nkengasong in 2017 in the Lancet journal of global health.
“In addition to these concerns, African countries are burdened with insufficient public health assets including surveillance, laboratory networks, competent workforce, and research expertise that hinder evidence-based decision-making,” he noted.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the agency has coordinated the African Union’s continental response strategy. Key among the goals of the AfricaCDC was to create a medical supplies platform acting as a one-stop shop for procurement of vital personal protective equipment by governments.
Congratulating the agency for the historic decision, Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the WHO hub for pandemic and epidemic intelligence wrote on Twitter: “This is a huge moment for public health in Africa. Our leaders have spoken.”