Strengthening Role of Regional Public Health Institutions to Improve Cross-Border Disease Surveillance and Response

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and its partners, including the World Bank, today launched a new report to help strengthen the role of public health institutions in mitigating transnational threats of infectious diseases in Africa in general, and in Eastern and Southern Africa in particular.

Titled “Disease Surveillance, Emergency Preparedness and Response in Eastern and Southern Africa,” the new report financed by the Korea-World Bank Partnership Facility notes that while Africa’s integration efforts have created new economic opportunities, they have also heightened the risk posed by communicable diseases. Thus the need for strengthening regional disease surveillance systems and emergency-response capabilities across the continent. The report underscores the indispensable role of regional coordination in ensuring that outbreaks can be identified and addressed in every corner of the continent. To safeguard the health of Africa and the world, continental institutions must be able to swiftly detect and effectively address disease outbreaks anywhere before they become a threat everywhere.

Through the Regional Integrated Surveillance and Laboratory Network (RISLNET), set up by the Africa CDC and supported by the World Bank-financed Africa CDC Regional Investment Financing Project, Africa’s scarce public health resources are being maximized by harmonizing laboratory systems, leveraging the unique strengths of regional health leaders, and integrating national disease surveillance and response capabilities into comprehensive networks operating under the aegis of the Africa CDC and the African Union. This will be key for reducing the transnational threat of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 across African Union member states. Using the One Health approach, RISLNET facilitates close collaboration among national public health institutions, academic institutions, private and public laboratories, centers of excellence, non-governmental and civil society organizations, and veterinary services to address regional challenges, pandemic preparedness, and rapid disease detection and response.

RISLNET is already operational in Central Africa, and the new report outlines an action plan for its expansion to other regions.

“RISLNET is Africa CDC’s flagship initiative. Currently, RISLNET has been rolled out in Central Africa, and the findings of this report are very timely in providing a roadmap for its rollout across the Eastern and Southern Africa regions for which financing is provided under the Africa CDC Regional Investment Financing Project,” said Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC. “This initiative is fully aligned with the continent’s drive to integration and the continental free trade areas.”

Laboratory networks in Eastern Africa have strengthened their clinical and analytical capabilities at country level while fostering cross-border collaboration, providing compelling proof of concept for RISLNET. For example, through the East Africa Public Health Laboratory Networking Project (EAPHLN), health authorities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi have developed a network of 40 well-equipped public health laboratories with trained personnel and robust diagnostic and surveillance capacity. The EAPHLN has significantly increased cross-border outbreak preparedness and response while enhancing the impact of national-level facilities, and it has played a crucial role in combatting the regional spread of COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic starkly illustrates how the undetected transmission of pathogens across borders can quickly transform a local disease outbreak into a regional health emergency or even global crisis”, says Ms. Deborah Wetzel, World Bank Director of Regional Integration for Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. “There is an urgent need to combat present and future epidemics through strong national and regional integration. This timely report provides critical findings towards building an interconnected network for identifying, monitoring, and addressing infectious disease outbreaks in Africa. It offers detailed guidance on how to harness Africa’s public health resources and will inform countries and development partners in their efforts to enhance regional disease control systems across the continent”.

The burgeoning pandemic intensified the report’s focus on identifying the medium and long-term investments necessary to build a comprehensive institutional framework for monitoring, containing, and addressing infectious disease outbreaks across Africa. In Eastern and Southern Africa, member states vary widely in terms of strategic planning, laboratory capabilities, human resources and surveillance and reporting mechanisms.

The report makes five main recommendations for the Africa CDC, including: (i) operationalizing RISLNET in Eastern and Southern Africa within the next 12 months; (ii) strengthening regional and continental laboratory networks by analyzing laboratory capabilities and creating standardized guidelines for building staff capacity in diagnostics and strategic planning; (iii) building institutional and staff capacity in the areas of testing, quality control, biosafety, specimen referral and information management; (iv) enhancing national, regional, and continental disease-surveillance networks by enabling the adoption of a unified electronic data platform while building data-reporting and analytical capacity; and (v) developing multi-sectoral, multi-hazard preparedness and response plans, and conduct regular simulation exercises at all levels in each member state in the sub-region.

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