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Africa CDC struggles to battle outbreaks amid dwindling resources, lack of staff

Wednesday March 18 2020
By VERAH OKEYO

When Dr Ahmed Ogwell left his consultancy to be deputy director at the Africa Centres for Disease Control he did not anticipate he would be kept awake by five disease outbreaks threatening to annihilate Africans, including Ebola in Congo, cholera and the coronavirus.

On Tuesday morning, after dealing with various health issues on the continent from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is based, Dr Ogwell took time off his busy schedule to speak the Nation. He said Africa CDC needs money.

Dr Ogwell: “Domestic funding for disaster preparedness is very thin. We have made governments aware of this regularly but we are not seeing an outpouring of allocations.”

When the CDC Africa was formed in 2017, members of the African Union promised to fund its activities to coordinate responses to diseases. It was modelled on the success of its American doppelgänger, but it is a far cry from the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, financially speaking.

Just after he assumed office, the second bout of the haemorrhagic fever Ebola gripped Congo, cholera driven by the cyclone in Mozambique set in, and Lassa fever, far deadlier than Ebola, is now wreaking havoc in Nigeria. Apart from the headline-grabbing body count, there have been statistics coming in about countries taking three steps back to erase the two they made forward in polio, measles, malaria and other endemic diseases.

The world has reported 114,542 cases and 4,028 deaths globally. Togo, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Cameroon have recorded positive cases. Dr Ogwell said a litany of woes with these diseases “wiped out all the money we have, and even with the current Ebola outbreak, we are responding with very modest means”.

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A strong health system is a personal and professional passion. He’s a medical doctor by training and has seen patients battling diseases that come as a result of the failures of the health system, but also lost both parents and a sister to cancer.

With that gloom and dread of limited resources, he has a strategy: Do whatever it takes to hire the best and apply a “neighbours’ approach” where he strengthens health systems in the countries adjacent to the affected one. He is particularly worried about Kenya, just as he is for Senegal, Rwanda, Togo, South Africa, Morocco and a few other countries that are transport hubs.

With assistance from the international community and the World Health Organization (WHO), these 13 countries have had simulations of how to control a disease, but this is hardly enough. He said: “They passed, but not with flying colours and that is going to need emergency money put aside.”

Luckily, donors have given some money that allowed him to fast-track the hiring process for laboratory personnel.

There were only two, but now the number has risen to 12, and the people who have worked with countries to establish labs with the capacity to test for influenza from less than five to 43 on the continent. The Gates Foundation committed up to $100 million, $20 million of which will go to countries in Africa and Asia. The Kenya Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program is one of the groups marked for funding.

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