WEST AFRICA: First regional centre for disease control

West African health ministers recently approved a 10-year plan to create a regional centre for disease control aimed at boosting education and training programmes as well as research on communicable diseases. The new centre - the first of four African disease control hubs - will be based in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.

The other hubs will be at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and South Africa's National Institute of Communicable Diseases - which will both be enhanced - as well as a new centre in Angola.

Even with political commitment, it will be a "huge challenge, a long road" to train technicians to meet the centre's goal of having 68 laboratory staff by 2019, said Evariste Mutabaruka, director of the World Health Organization's Ouagadougou-based Multi Disease Surveillance Centre.

The new West African centre for disease control (CDC) will focus on communicable diseases, which cause 60% of deaths in West Africa.

They include river blindness (onchocerciasis, caused by a worm in West and Central Africa), meningitis, HIV-Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, neglected tropical diseases such as leishmaniasis (a parasitic infection spread by sandflies) and schistosomiasis (a water-borne fluke infection carried by snails), emergent diseases, epidemics, and potential pandemics.

The CDC will help to centralise data across borders through a password-protected information database, promote cross-border collaboration and coordination of responses to trans-boundary epidemics, improve national laboratories through quality control, conduct research and epidemiological training, and develop early-warning models to predict epidemics.

Morad Ahmed Morad, a professor of medicine at Tanta University in Egypt, welcomed the news.

He told University World News that the new centre, along with the African Union-backed centre for infectious diseases in Egypt, would help to monitor and control infectious diseases by acting as a communications hub for information from health agencies across Africa, supporting research into developing new drugs and vaccines against diseases, promoting affordable access to medicines, devising action plans in response to health threats, and providing training for health workers.

"As many African countries lack the universities to train and educate all the doctors and nurses they need, the shortage of trained medical personnel is now one of the biggest obstacles to providing life-saving drugs to African patients, leading to unnecessary deaths," said Morad.

"The new centre will help in facing the severe medical workforce crisis, which is going to be worsen because of the ongoing global recession and as one in four African doctors leave their home country in search of the better pay and more comfortable living and working conditions of the industrialised world," Morad concluded.

Pa Tamba Ngom, a researcher in the Nutrition Programme of the Medical Research Council in The Gambia, told University World News: "This African initiative is a great start, but quite often such initiatives are not appropriately driven by Africans themselves.

"It will be critical that African scientists draw from the experience of others. But short of full determination and empowerment of Africa scientists to lead the initiative (and make their own mistakes to learn from along the way), there will be frustration and lack of the necessary passion for its success. African scientists must own the CDC to make it work."

Ngom also argued that the centre should not be limited to communicable diseases. "For example malnutrition is not communicable, but has serious influences on communicable disease. Some reports put malnutrition as the single most important factor in increasing death rates in hospitalised patients. The interactions of malnutrition and infection also have important public health implications which make it impossible to leave out when we try to control communicable diseases."