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Bridging diagnostic gaps in prevention, control of epidemics in Africa

By Luminous Jannamike, Abuja

Epidemic and pandemic-prone diseases threaten public health and security because they can be responsible for high levels of death and also have a devastating impact on the economies of nations.

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The most commonly reported epidemic outbreaks in Africa are cholera, dysentery, malaria and hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and yellow fever.

As part of efforts to support the prevention and control of these outbreaks and more, the African Society for Laboratory Medicine (ASLM) recently organized its biennial conference in Abuja to highlight some of the challenges scientists and innovators face and the role the laboratory can play towards mitigating the impact of these diseases.

The meeting gathered laboratorians, clinicians, policy makers, programme managers, pathologists, epidemiologists, researchers, and private industry across Africa to also discuss the proficiencies and sustained collaborations needed to end epidemics in the continent.

According to the Acting Chief Executive Officer of the ASLM, Ndlovu Nqobile, manpower development and well-supported laboratories play an increasingly important role in surveillance, confirmation of suspected cases, effective testing of potential cases; and monitoring of progress towards prevention of disease epidemics.

“We don’t want to wait till there is an outbreak to begin to discuss quality. It is not helpful then. That’s why even before outbreaks occur, we are working in a number of laboratories in Africa, supporting them to be able to produce the kind of quality needed and to respond on time,” he said.

The conference also provided opportunity for networking among participants, particularly for newcomers to African healthcare settings and markets while promoting the creation of public-private partnerships to ensure further development of both African laboratories and African diagnostics companies.

Through thematic presentations, training activities and icase study sessions, the confab also provided a forum for awareness of opportunities to invest in laboratory medicine amongst private, public and philanthropic donors.

In one of the interactive sessions, Dr. Dougbeh Nyan, Chief Executive and Scientific Officer of Shufflex Biomed, stressed the need for African scientists and innovators to look inward for solutions to the continent’s diagnostic problems.

He said: “Africa’s solutions will have to come from us Africans; we know our problems better than anyone and should not wait for imported solutions that do not effectively address our problems.

“Africa needs to identify and support home-grown talents, creativity and technological learning. African governments must develop and implement smart collaborative national and pan-African innovation policies in medicine, agriculture, science and technology.”

Dr. Nyan also outlined problems they face to include: “Lack of access to capital and funding, and the limited or no support from African national governments constitute a major problem. Lack of infrastructure as well as the bureaucratic, weak or corrupt government systems in many African countries are hindering innovations.”

The conference also provided the opportunity for partnerships as an important step in building and advancing healthcare systems on the continent taking into consideration the AU Agenda 2063 for development.

Against that backdrop, ASLM partnered with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to address existing barriers towards advancing the diagnostic agenda in Africa.This they did through the launch of the Africa Collaborative Initiative to Advance Diagnostics (AFCAD).

Speaking on the sidelines of the confab, Dr. Yenew Kebede, the Head of Laboratory Division, Africa CDC, noted that Universal Health Coverage is a priority for African countries to attain inclusive and sustainable growth. He stressed that many diseases remain undiagnosed due to poor diagnostic capacity in most African countries.

Kebede said: “The limited access to essential tests and slow introduction of innovative technologies result in insufficient disease case finding and hampers access to, and monitoring of, treatment. Barriers to diagnostics prevent the African continent from becoming free of epidemic-prone diseases and compromise the achievement of the health agenda of the African Union”.

Other partners on this initiative include:Institut de Recherche, de Surveillance Epidémiologiqueet de Formation (IRESSEF), World Health Organization Africa Regional Office (WHO-AFRO), Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET) and UNITAID.

Similarly, Roche Diagnostics Country Head for Nigeria, Taofik Oloruko-Oba, expressed the belief in collaborative efforts and announced that the organization will be partnering with ASLM to make the biennial confab bigger and better.

He also showcased the Roche Diagnostics achievements in tackling Hepatitis B and C in Nigeria as well as its new solutions in the HIV space.

Other speakers at the meeting were  Dr. Trevor Peter, the Director of the Diagnostic Services at the Clinton Health Access Initiative; Dr. John Nkengasong the Director of African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Waafa El Sadr, Founder and Director of the International Centre for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs; and South Africa’s National Health Laboratory Service official, Dr. Wendy Stevens.

The conference was chaired by co-founder and the Executive Director of the International Research Centre of Excellence at the Institute of Human Virology Nigeria, Prof. Alash’le Abimiku.

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