Time for Africa to take control of its own health

OPINION

In February 2019, the African Union Assembly made a unanimous decision to establish a continental regulatory body that would facilitate dependable access to medical products including vaccines. This resulted in the treaty for the establishment of the African Medicines Agency (AMA), which has so far been signed by 28 AU member states and fully ratified by 17.

While progress has been slower than anticipated (the idea was first proposed a decade ago), it marks a significant milestone in Africa’s journey towards coordinated regulation of medical products, joint investment in regional research, development and manufacturing, and enhanced quality control to safeguard against substandard medicines. 

To some degree, it’s safe to say that we have the Covid-19 pandemic to thank for this renewed sense of urgency, which is forcing the continent to rethink its approach to healthcare and move from rhetoric to action. Like with many other regions around the world, the pandemic caught Africa unawares. It exposed glaring gaps and long-ignored risks within the continent’s health systems, from weak primary healthcare and overreliance on medical imports to inadequate human resources for health and structural inequalities that manifested in the form of weak social protection programmes, which left low-income populations even more vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19. Additionally, it revealed the centrality of basic public health interventions such as improved sanitation and hygiene, which have been proven to be simple but effective in fighting disease outbreaks.

Now, as Africa looks towards recovery from Covid-19, much faith is being put in the AMA (alongside other institutions such as the Africa CDC) to ensure that never again will the continent find itself at the mercy of wealthier nations in times of health crises. 

Top on the AMA’s agenda will be to garner more support from African powerhouses such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, which are among 27 countries yet to sign the treaty despite efforts by leaders like Rwandan President Paul Kagame to bring more countries into the fold. This additional support would go a long way in enabling the agency to fulfil its mission to harmonise regulatory policies guiding the approval of new medicines, which is urgently needed in the wake of pervasive vaccine injustice that continues to deny hundreds of millions of Africans access to lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines.

Whereas the AMA is unlikely to resolve the current Covid-19 vaccines crisis, it will assist Africa in achieving its ambitious Africa pharmaceutical manufacturing plan, which will provide commodity security.

Africa must no longer wait for “charity” that may not be forthcoming as wealthier nations focus on protecting their own citizens. With stronger political will and decisive, coordinated action, we can safeguard our own people and strengthen health systems. African leaders have a responsibility to their citizens to expand access to safe, quality medicines and ensure optimisation of healthcare systems to reduce morbidity and prevent avoidable death. This is especially critical on a continent that produces only 2% of the medicines it consumes and accounts for about 42% of identified cases of falsified or substandard pharmaceuticals.

It is time for Africa to take control of its own health. 

The AMA could be part of the armour that delivers us to the promised land; a land where every African citizen has access to safe, reliable and affordable healthcare; where countries have the capacity to manufacture vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and other essential medical resources, to participate in regional trade without barriers and to reap the fruits of a new public health order designed to safeguard the health and economic security of the African people. 

Through the AMA, Africa has a unique opportunity to apply key lessons from its history of preventing and responding to disease outbreaks — such as Ebola and Covid-19 — to harmonise regulatory systems and build one of the world’s most efficient regulatory bodies. As African citizens, we must hold our leaders accountable for its success.

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Githinji Gitahi
Dr Githinji Gitahi is group chief executive of Amref Health Africa

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