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Changing Narratives and Socioeconomic Impacts of Emerging Infectious Diseases in Africa

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Over the years, Africa has been known to harbour not only emerging infectious diseases but also recurrent infectious diseases. Most fatal emerging infectious diseases in humans are thought to have originated in Africa. Some examples of emerging infectious diseases that have caused public health problems over the past decade in Africa include tuberculosis, ebola, malaria, measles, yellow fever, Rift Valley fever, Zika virus, Chikungunya virus, Lassa fever, and recently coronavirus which cause severe acute respiratory syndrome recently emerged in 2019. African countries have been disadvantaged compared to the rest of the world in terms of readiness to deal with emerging infectious diseases (EID).

Some of the factors contributing to these disadvantages include economic insecurity, political instability, and massive population displacement that have led to the collapse of many of the health systems responsible for administering emergency services. In time past, Africa also lacks adequate disease surveillance systems to help manage, predict and prevent future epidemics.

It is, therefore, important to evaluate Africa’s response to infectious diseases over the past decade, test the accuracy of these responses, and propose more effective responses with future outbreaks. Africa’s response to epidemics over the past decade has been fraught with serious deficiencies in surveillance, research and education programs, and the availability of trained infectious disease specialists, which leads to other serious problems.

Consequences of emerging diseases in Africa

Emerging diseases in Africa tend to disrupt trade and commerce and place the economies of these countries in untold hardship. Emerging and re-emerging disease outbreaks have the potential to cause economic hardship and stress for affected countries. Diseases such as cholera and Ebola had put a strain on the poor and underserved healthcare resources of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and as epidemics pass 1,000 deaths, especially those in people in the productive years of their lives and the economy is in ruins. Furthermore, on the other hand, these illnesses are similarly devastating to personal and family lives, negatively affecting working hours.

Tuberculosis for instance has long been found to be transmitted by a droplet infection when people with an active infection sneeze and cough, releasing infectious mycobacterium bacteria into the air. Tuberculosis is basically a disease of poverty closely related to overcrowding and malnutrition. This results in a loss of 20%–30% of family income. Approximately 8.4 million people worldwide suffer from tuberculosis, resulting in an average loss of approximately 30% of work productivity, costing the global economy approximately $1 billion a year.

Poverty and dependence on other countries to fund EID-related research has slowed Africa’s progress in the fight against Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID). However curbing this menace, Regular updates on the state of the ED burden in Africa will help various public health officials and researchers better plan for current and future ED outbreaks.

Changing narratives on infectious and emerging diseases

Research has shown that vaccines are essential to reduce mortality, improving life expectancy, and promoting economic growth in Africa. The geopolitics surrounding access to vaccines during the current Covid pandemic underscores the need for Africa to engage in local vaccine production to avoid dependence on external factors because of health and safety. Though, recently there has been continuous local production of vaccines, medicines and diagnostics, which is essential to protect Africa’s health security.

Despite the adverse threats posed by infectious diseases in Africa, it is remarkable that various countries have found that Africa is capable of producing more than 30% of the vaccines in use which had come from countries like Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia. However, the Global Alliance for Vaccines for Immunization (GAVI) has played an important role in bringing new vaccines to Africa. It is therefore remarkable that African governments and institutions can now invest in removing barriers to local vaccine production, including process development and maintenance, production facilities, management product portfolio management and lifecycle management. In addition, efforts such as the Africa Vaccine Manufacturers Initiative are now being promoted and encouraged.

Furthermore, adequate investments in developing and maintaining a prepared pool of public health experts and leaders are now fundamental to the continent’s response to disease threats. Using the continent’s powerful public health organizations, Africa is now harmonising and coordinating public health responses across regions, sectors and borders. However, African political leaders are learning from experienced organizations and countries on how to support and provide resources to the Africa Centre for Disease Control so that the agency can further play a central role in the health order for public health, safeguarding health security and the economic development of the continent.

In addition, African countries are prioritising training health professionals for the next generation of global health leaders for a more multi-dimensional approach to addressing health and disease-related issues. This includes arming the next generation to understand that public health agendas need to be pushed politically and diplomatically. Political, religious and traditional leaders are now protecting Africa’s public health with evidence-based estimates that predict resource needs before the threat of an epidemic occurs in the future.

Implications and future directions

Africa has been severely impacted by both emerging and recurrent infectious diseases, with many of the deadliest diseases originating from the continent. The lack of readiness and inadequate disease surveillance systems in African countries has made it difficult to manage, predict and prevent future epidemics, and this has led to serious economic and health consequences.

The economic hardship resulting from disease outbreaks has disrupted trade and commerce, leading to serious consequences for the economy and personal and family lives. However, there have been some positive developments in Africa’s response to emerging infectious diseases, including the production of vaccines and the training of health professionals.

African governments and institutions are investing in removing barriers to local vaccine production and are prioritizing the training of health professionals for the next generation of global health leaders. African political leaders are also learning how to support and provide resources to the Africa Centre for Disease Control to play a central role in safeguarding health security and the economic development of the continent.

Going forward, it is important to continue to evaluate Africa’s response to infectious diseases and propose more effective responses to future outbreaks. By doing so, Africa can better plan for current and future epidemics, reduce mortality rates, improve life expectancy, and promote economic growth.

Onah Caleb is a research assistant at Benue State University (Nigeria). He runs the blog KaylebsThought.


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