Africa is a continent of contradictions. It is the land of new opportunities and home to some of the most globally acclaimed and disruptive technologies. It is also home to many weak political, social and economic systems and millions of poor, disease burdened population.
And while the continent has in the past few decades leveraged its people’s unbridled spirit, ingenuity and capabilities and recorded some good progress in some areas, the reality is, there are sectors that are still lagging behind. The health sector is one area where Africans’ resourcefulness has not been adequately applied to address inequalities and disparities in the system, which continue to widen.
Whereas the Western world has put in place public health interventions and strategies that have reduced mortality and raised life expectancy, Africa is still burdened and grappling with treatable and preventable diseases. African children, for instance, are 16 times more likely to die before the age of five than those in the developed regions.
And while the situation can be attributed to several major factors, the one that is often not given the deserved prominence, is the underinvestment of scientific funding in the health system. The insufficient public sector funding in health research and development, means that not only is there limited innovation, medicines, vaccines or diagnostics, but the continent’s health systems are not equipped to handle emerging and re-emerging catastrophic and infectious diseases. This makes it that much harder to improve its performance in the health-related Sustainable Development Goals.
Globalisation has brought with it complexities in the spread of these diseases that are hard to treat or manage despite the efforts being made to address them. And while there’s consensus that funding of medical research should be a key priority for all governments, especially those in Africa, it is also a fact that the health sector ranks lowly on many governments’ priority national agendas if their commitment to the Abuja Declaration of 2001 is anything to go by. Nearly 17 years after they pledged to commit 15 percent of their annual budgets to public health spending, only six countries have reached and or surpassed the target. African researchers cannot continue to work in silos. Supported by the governments, they should be integrated into the larger continental community.
Africa can draw lessons from Afrique One-ASPIRE, a programme designed to expand research capacity and promote sustainable interactions among professionals in human, animal and environmental health in sub-Saharan Africa.
Funded by a consortium of donors, including nine African institutions, it is focused on endemic zoonotic diseases to put into practice the One Health approach. It has recruited more than 60 scientists, from 12 East, Central and West Africa, to conduct research on rabies, tuberculosis, brucellosis and other diseases. This opens avenues to develop health system models, share and improve their knowledge.
It will help to not only shine a spotlight on neglected diseases, but also bring the work of African scientists to the attention of the global scientific community.
Prof Bonfoh is the director, Afrique One-ASPIRE. Twitter: @babonfoh