ETHIOPIA – Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), stated that the organization is planning a program to entice scientists, doctors, and nurses to return from the diaspora.

According to the head of the continent’s disease control center, doctors and nurses are needed to supplement the local pandemic response.

The leadership of the continent must invest in strengthening health systems,” Nkengasong said, in an interview with the Observer.

“We need a very deliberate programme that facilitates Africans in the diaspora to come back to the continent and do a rotation. A Ghanaian or Nigerian in London doesn’t just wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to go to Nigeria for a year.’ That person needs lodging, basic transportation. They have responsibilities, a job.”

He stated that the Africa CDC would soon present to the African Union commission a package of measures to create a regional health treaty to govern the pandemic response, which would include assistance for expatriates.

According to a study conducted by the House of Commons library last year, 2.5 percent of NHS England’s 1.35 million employees were African. Nigeria had the highest proportion (10,494), followed by Zimbabwe (4,780), Ghana (3,395), and Egypt (2,895).

Nigeria has approximately 72,000 registered doctors, but only 35,000 were practicing in the country in 2021, The Guardian reports.

The Africa CDC established seven working groups to enable doctors and scientists in richer countries to provide regular advice remotely.

“They have been extremely useful during this pandemic,” Nkengasong said. “We need to formalize it and facilitate the return to the continent to support the public need.”

Africa fared better in pandemic

Africa appears to have fared better than other continents in terms of Covid and its variants. According to Dr. Nkengasong, approximately 10 million people have been infected, but this figure is likely an undercount, and approximately 220,000 people have died.

“That’s relatively low for a continent of 1.3 billion,” he said. “We saw India was overwhelmed by Covid in May; you couldn’t hide it. We’ve not seen a scenario in Africa where people are dying on the streets.

“I think there is a puzzle of why many more people have been infected in Africa, but it has not translated into many deaths. That is a research question we need to investigate, and also how many deaths we are missing.

“We have to be prepared for variants to emerge that will be more challenging than what we are dealing with.

Africa CDC was instrumental in establishing the Sentinel network of labs to track the virus using genomic sequencing, which led to the discovery of the Omicron variant in Botswana in November.

“We have the infrastructure in place to detect early, prevent and respond,” he said. “Take west Africa – there’s a lot of public health assets there. The Noguchi [Medical Research] Institute in Nigeria is a state-of-the-art facility. The Pasteur Institute in Cote d’Ivoire, the Pasteur Institute in Senegal, the Medical Research Council in the Gambia – but they were not talking to each other. The whole concept of this new public health order is to use as much in the region as you can.”

He went on to say that in 2018, he was contacted by public health officials in Sierra Leone about a suspected monkeypox case, and they asked for his assistance in finding someone at the US CDC to test for the disease. “I said no, but if you send it to Cote d’Ivoire, I know they have the primers to assist you.”

He believes that the mindset of Africans always needing assistance from richer Western nations is far too prevalent.

People see the continent as a place to go, do a few projects, gather the data, publish it, do a few clinical trials and get out. That is not global health. It should be an equal partnership, recognizing that the principal investigators should come from the developing countries.”

With the WHO’s Covax program, he said the pandemic demonstrated the limits of western assistance. The Gavi alliance, which oversees the program, had pledged to provide 2 billion vaccine doses to 144 poorer countries by 2021, but only provided about 900 million.

Poorer countries rejected 100 million doses that were about to expire earlier this month. There has been much discussion about whether Western countries were stockpiling vaccines.

So far Africa CDC has launched 12 pandemic initiatives, he said. As well as genomic surveillance and vaccines, there are plans to secure diagnostics and testing kits, and medical supplies.

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