Scientists usually point to Central Africa as the site of some of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. Cash-strapped governments usually depend on foreign assistance, especially when pandemics break out.
But now, there’s fresh reason to hope for a prompt and effective local response. With US sponsorship, Central Africa has begun training local specialists in field epidemiology and laboratory science.
Health officials in the Republic of Congo are sounding the alarm after the emergence of a mysterious disease they say has claimed more than 20 lives in a month.
The illness resembles polio, which leads to paralysis, says Prof. Alexis Elhira Dokekias, the country’s director of health. He adds that efforts to identify the disease have met with little success. As they wait for foreign assistance, they’re preserving the remains of deceased victims for analysis. Dokekias says in the meantime, the death toll is skyrocketing.
That’s just one of several epidemics, including a cholera outbreak that reportedly originated in northern Cameroon last May and is still killing hundreds in neighboring Nigeria and Chad. Diseases like ebola and dengue fever silently killed hundreds before they were identified.
Experts say a major contributing factor is inadequate epidemiological surveillance, or its sheer absence in some countries in the region.
Epidemiological surveillance is the systematic collection, analysis and dissemination of health information so that officials can plan, carry out and evaluate projects..
Central Africa is home to some of the world’s poorest people and governments. Officials are welcoming a US-sponsored post-graduate program to groom 18 field epidemiologists and laboratory scientists from three countries -- eight from the DRC and five each from Central African Republic and Cameroon.
The training project is called the Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program, or FELTP. It’s a two-year master’s degree course and it’s been underway since late October at the University of Yaounde.
The program will not only help find antidotes to pandemics in Central Africa, says Prof. Oumarou Bouba, rector of the University of Yaounde, but also contribute to sub-regional integration with the possibility of cross-border collaboration to track down, prevent and control the spread of disease.
The course is the first of its kind in Central Africa. Worldwide there are now 52 such programs that have been launched by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) since 1980. For Central Africa, the project is also supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization.
Officials say its launch is part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Global Health Initiative, which seeks to build the capacities of partner nations to address their public health needs with their own resources. Over half the programs are now run independently of US government support.
“This program is going to help Central Africa fight its epidemics and conduct surveillance,” says Peter Nsubuga, who represents the CDC project. “There’re several diseases, vaccine-preventable diseases. So the problems have always been there. This is an opportunity to start dealing with them using people who are trained here and who will be deployed here and we know this will continue.”
Graduates elsewhere have led successful investigations of public health emergencies in their home countries – including HIV infection and avian and H1N1 (or swine) flu, among vaccinated populations.
“I really believe that through this program, we can help control cholera,” says Robert Jackson, the US ambassador to Cameroon, “we can do better with polio, measles – we can do better in attacking contagious diseases when they break out and through that, we can do a better job of keeping disease from spreading from country to country.”
But observers warn the project may lead nowhere if the necessary equipment and infrastructure are not put in place so graduates can use their training.
Prof. Paul Herrling is head of the Novartis Institutes for Developing World Medical Research. He says on the whole, African governments must substantially increase their budgets for health and research to better prevent and control the spread of disease:
“The GDP they allocate to research is very, very small. For doing research, you need very strong -- very strong infrastructure. You have to be rich essentially and that’s not the case, and so it’s rather difficult.”
But Cameroon government officials say they’re sparing no effort in ensuring that the country reaps a hundred percent benefit from the program. They have pledged to build field laboratories across the country to conduct permanent surveillance and provide prompt alerts.