By Sharon Atieno

In a bid to improve handling of emergencies in Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially launched a health emergency hub in Nairobi, Kenya.

The African region experiences over 100 health emergencies per year, more than any other region in the world.

Though much progress has been made with the efforts of countries and various partners, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed huge gaps, particularly the continent’s lack of emergency responders.

WHO analysis finds that fewer than 10% of countries in the African region have the workforce required to prepare, detect and respond to public health risks.

The new hub will help train a corps of 3000 elite responders from across the region. The aim is for each country in Africa to have at least one integrated team of emergency experts who will be ready to deploy within the first 24 hours of a national health crisis.

A wide range of professionals including laboratory experts, epidemiologists, data managers, anthropologists, field logisticians and mental health and psychosocial experts will receive training.

The groundbreaking ceremony in Nairobi on 9th July was attended by the President of Kenya, H. E. Uhuru Kenyatta, the Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moet.

President Kenyatta commended WHO for the launch of the new innovative initiative to improve the capacities of African countries to respond, in real-time, to increasingly numerous and complex health emergencies.

“An expanded and more versatile emergencies hub in Kenya will allow WHO to effectively and swiftly support Kenya and all Eastern and Southern African countries by maintaining stockpiles of medical and logistical supplies.

To facilitate the commencement of operations of the hub, President Kenyatta said the Government has allocated 30 acres of land adjacent to Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital (KUTRRH) and committed USD 5 million towards the operationalization of the hub.

These together with free office space for 120 WHO staff at KUTRRH for three years are part of the Government of Kenya’s contributions of US$ 31 million towards the Emergency Hub.

“We will continue to collaborate with other development partners in sourcing for more resources to support the completion and the full operationalization of this hub,” the President said.

The Kenyan Minister of Health, Mutahi Kagwe, who joined the ceremony said: “Kenya is proud to be at the forefront of efforts to improve the response to emergencies across the continent.

“The Centre of Excellence and the Emergency Hub builds on Kenya’s global health security leadership and will lead to an empowered Africa which can contain outbreaks and other emergencies rapidly. It complements the country’s health response developments that have seen the establishment of local manufacturing capacity and robust research into emerging health challenges.”

The Emergency Hub will also oversee a variety of sub-regional activities in Eastern Africa, including maintaining stockpiles of medical and logistical supplies and stationing WHO staff to ensure quick deployment during emergencies.

One such emergency is the deepening drought and food insecurity in the region. Over 80 million people in the eastern African region are food insecure and with rising malnutrition, a health crisis is looming.

“I thank the Government of Kenya for its leadership and generosity in supporting the Emergency Hub,” said Dr Tedros.

“The Hub will improve the capacity of African countries to prepare, detect and respond to health emergencies, support resilient health systems, and strengthen the regional and global health architecture.”

The Hub will be fundamental for WHO Africa’s flagship initiative for health security, also launched today. The initiative aims to ensure that one billion Africans are better protected from health emergencies by the end of 2025. WHO is contributing US $47 million in funding for the implementation of the regional flagship initiative.

“COVID-19 has exposed how critical it is for Africa to be self-reliant,” said Dr Moeti.

“By developing our own national elite responders, building robust surveillance systems and investing in pandemic preparedness, we are strengthening the speed of the response and creating a better future for our children. I thank the Government of Kenya for its visionary leadership which is ensuring the continent can stand tall and proud and not be brought down to its knees by a virus.”

Senegal and Nigeria are the other two African countries selected to host the WHO hubs that will also be centres of excellence in emergency medical training with a capacity to respond to over 100 crises at a time.

The WHO flagship initiative is the result of extensive consultations with more than 30 African government ministers, technical actors, partners across the continent, which have contributed to shaping the priority activities.