By Joyce Chimbi

A growing number of African countries are making commitments to integrate climate change into their health policies and strategies. More than 24 countries on the continent including Rwanda have already made commitments to assess climate change vulnerabilities within the context of strengthening their health systems.

These countries are also working to build capacities within their health workforce including community-based health workers, to enable them to deal with health challenges as a result of climate change. The most immediate challenge being the exponential rise in cholera cases on the continent amid a global surge.

According to WHO Africa region, “cases recorded on the continent in the first month of 2023 alone have already risen by more than 30 percent of the total caseload reached in the whole of 2022. An estimated 26 000 cases and 660 deaths have been reported as of 29 January 2023 in 10 African countries facing outbreaks since the beginning of the year.

“In 2022 nearly 80 000 cases and 1863 deaths were recorded from 15 affected countries. If the current fast-rising trend continues, it could surpass the number of cases recorded in 2021, the worst year for cholera in Africa in nearly a decade. The average case fatality ratio is currently almost at three percent, above the 2.3 percent reached in 2022, and far exceeding the acceptable level of below one percent.”

Health experts at the Africa Health Agenda International Conference 2023 said that Africa is grappling with the issue of vulnerability, capacity, adaptation and planning.

This calls for the need to take into account contextual factors that have to be addressed in order to develop contextually relevant solutions. This will enable health systems on the African continent to rise to the challenges emerging from the climate crisis.

Nevertheless, Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma who is currently the Acting Director of Africa CDC, an autonomous body of the African Union (AU) emphasized that despite these challenges, “Africa is an underrated continent. We have what it takes to lead the globe in very many ways including health care.”

“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when health facilities, and I am being very deliberate in saying health facilities in the global North collapsed under the weight of patients, the health system on the continent of Africa stood very firm. Although this system was hit from many angles by the pandemic, by existing health challenges, it stood the test of time because we have a health system on the continent, not health facilities,” Dr. Ouma expounded.

“The Africa health agenda not just the conference, but the agenda needs to be set by us on the continent of Africa. This is an opportunity for us to discuss how we do this efficiently because the agenda is not set on this conference but it is set when we go back home. We have a lot to share, our experience in the recent outbreak or pandemic is enough for due respect to be given to the continent because we got a lot of things right and we now want to build on what we did right.”

He stressed the need to share the lessons learnt from COVID-19, build on it and export the knowledge to others outside the continent. This adaptation of the experiences and lessons learnt must therefore start on the African continent.

“The most lingering question on many people’s mind right about the time the COVID-19 pandemic was coming under control, is whether the numbers that came out of Africa of those who died was correct. Instead of asking what the continent did right so that we can all be better prepared for the next pandemic, there was doubt and suspicion,” said Dr. Ouma.

Nevertheless, Africa still has a long way to go. Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, Minister of Health, Rwanda explained that Africa as a continent has the highest share of disease burden in the world especially infectious diseases.

“Africa contributes only 2 percent of the health research output in the world. More than 80 percent of the vaccines consumed in Africa come from outside our continent. Most of these diseases are coming from our environment, animals and people. This is what we call One Health, the relationship between people, wildlife and environment,” he observed.

“All is well when there is harmony among people, the environment and health. But when this relationship is disrupted, this creates room for these diseases to come into our lives.”

Overall, he encouraged participants to play a role in helping their respective countries and communities to maintain a clean environment and used Rwanda as an example of a collective mission to maintain a clean and healthy environment which has been ongoing since 2008.  Today, Rwanda is not only the cleanest city in Africa it is also at the forefront of green growth.