Opening statement, COVID-19 Press Conference, 25 August 2022

Submitted by on Thu, 25/08/2022 - 14:06

Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti

Good day, bonjour, bom dia and welcome to all the journalists who are here in Lomé and online. During today’s press conference we will focus on the highlights of the Seventy-Second session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa. This is Africa’s top annual gathering where the continent’s health agenda is set.

I am very pleased to be joined today by the esteemed Minister of Health of Togo, my good friend and brother Professor Moustafa Mijiyawa, who is Chair of the 72nd Regional Committee, and by my sister, the Honourable Minister of Health of Uganda, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, who is also the second Vice-Chair of the RC72. 

A warm welcome to you both, and thank you for making yourselves available for this press conference, despite what has been a very demanding week.

I’d like to begin by conveying my sincere thanks to President Faure Gnassingbe, to Professor Moustafa, and to all the people of Togo for being such generous hosts this week.

The 72nd Regional Conference, attended by about 30 Health Ministers from the African Region, with others joining online, has provided a critical platform to discuss some of the most pressing health issues impacting our continent.

This is the first time since the onset of COVID-19 that we’ve been able to meet in-person. But the hybrid component reminds us that our lives, and our ways of working, have been irrevocably impacted by the pandemic.

Indeed, the pandemic has been a wake-up call for the African Region of the need to build resilient health systems that have the capacity to deliver quality, uninterrupted routine health care to our people, while coping with health emergencies.

We have spent the past week taking stock and interrogating our priorities, while identifying actionable ways in which to make our continent healthier. One of the primary outcomes was the adoption by African health ministers of a new eight-year strategy to transform health security and emergency response in the Region. 

The result of extensive consultations, with both African health ministries and a range of other institutions, the Regional Strategy for Health Security and Emergencies 2022-2030 commits Member States to reaching 12 critical targets by 2030 - to strengthen their capacity to prepare, detect and respond to health emergencies.

Among these, 80% of African Region countries should have secured predictable and sustainable health security financing, and have established health districts with functional service delivery and quality improvement programmes. Meanwhile, 90%, or nine out of 10, should have the capacity to mobilise an effective response to health emergencies within 24 hours of detection.

To realise these goals, Member States have agreed to commit the necessary political will, and to provide the requisite technical leadership, while mobilising adequate human and logistical resources.

WHO will support countries to operationalise the new strategy through a recently launched flagship initiative, currently being rolled out in five countries . There are plans to expand that number significantly before the end of the year, with programmes to be scaled up regionally over the next five years.

So, while our Region experiences the highest number of health emergencies globally, there are also many other pressing problems.

Africa is grappling with an increasingly heavy burden of chronic diseases, like diabetes, the severe forms of which are costing precious lives that could be saved with early diagnosis and care. On Tuesday, the health ministers adopted the strategy known as PEN-PLUS, A Regional Strategy to Address Severe Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) at First-Level Referral Health Facilities.

On a continent where severe NCDs are mostly treated at tertiary hospitals, which are mainly in cities, this strategy to boost district-level capacity for early diagnosis and management of severe NCDs is a major step towards health equity, bringing care to rural communities.

I am also extremely pleased to share news about the launch of a new campaign by African health ministers, supported by WHO and partners, to curb Sickle Cell Disease. 

This is one of most common, yet least recognised illnesses in the Region. Like childhood tuberculosis, for instance, it has been pushed to the sidelines for too long. 

For Sickle Cell Disease, most African countries don’t have the resources to provide comprehensive care to patients. This is despite the availability of proven cost-effective interventions to prevent, diagnose early, and manage this condition.

As we’ve seen with COVID-19, the impact of sickle cell diseases extends well beyond health, posing significant economic and social costs for patients and their families. We can’t afford to continue ignoring the threat, so greater investments, and stronger collaboration and partnerships, need to be prioritised.

Childhood TB also doesn’t typically receive much attention, even though one in every three TB cases among children globally occurs in our Region. So, highlighting this fact in the minds of policymakers is imperative to facilitate timely diagnosis and treatment.

We’ve learnt from monkeypox that we must cannot afford to ignore diseases common in Africa until they make headlines elsewhere. 

So, while there are considerably fewer confirmed cases of monkeypox in Africa, compared to other geographical regions, we must not relax. There is a need to scale up the response, and readiness capacity, to ensure optimal detection of cases.

As WHO, we reiterate our appeal to countries to focus their response efforts on raising awareness, surveillance, infection prevention and control, and supportive management for positive cases. This is extremely important, considering that no monkeypox vaccines or antivirals are yet available in African countries.

We’ve had 406 confirmed cases, and seven deaths across 11 African countries, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria continuing to account for most, or about 80%, of cases.

So, we are currently mapping availability of existing monkeypox vaccine supplies, and planned production, assessing needs. And our Headquarters colleagues are making an appeal for these to become available in the Region. 

In the DRC, WHO teams are on the ground in Beni in North Kivu, supporting the country’s efforts to vaccinate those at high risk of Ebola Virus Disease, and an initial 200 doses that have been made available arrived in Beni. We believe the  vaccination campaign started this morning.

Health authorities declared a resurgence of Ebola on Monday, following confirmation of one case in Beni. Analysis showed that the case is genetically linked to the 2018-2020 outbreak of Ebola in that country. 

So finally, for COVID-19, many countries are making impressive progress towards very high coverage rates among priority groups, especially health workers and people older than 50 years, who are at higher risk for severe illness and death.

But there is still much to be done, and I need to stress that the COVID-19 threat is far from over. As WHO, we continue to push for service delivery strategies that focus on high-priority groups in countries where fewer than 30% of the population is vaccinated.

We firmly believe that it is possible for African countries to catch up with the rest of the world, if we take vaccination services to the people, through mobile and outreach teams, and the establishment of dedicated vaccination teams.

So to end, I’d like to thank you all very much for joining us. Merci Monsieur le Ministre, and thank you Madam Minister for having joined us, and I very much look forward to what I am sure will be a very interesting discussion today.