KAMPALA — African scientists have called for increased training of epidemiologists as the continent grapples with more disease outbreaks like Ebola, COVID-19, and Marburg.
The senior epidemiologists, in a virtual meeting to commemorate the first World Field Epidemiology Day on Sept. 7, said field epidemiologists are critical in detecting and responding to outbreaks in communities.
Simon Antara, director of the African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET), a non-governmental organization, described field epidemiologists as the world’s “disease detectives” responsible for investigating public health signals to confirm outbreaks, and identify cases, contacts, and risk factors for diseases.
Around the world, their work advances evidence that strengthens public health policies and interventions, Antara said, noting that Africa needs a critical mass of epidemiologists to catch up with the continent’s rising population.
The continent has over 2,000 field epidemiologists, which translates to 36 percent of the required 5,500 epidemiologists needed, according to Antara.
He said there are many countries on the continent that do not have access to opportunities to develop field epidemiology capacity to strengthen their health systems.
“What that means is that such countries lack a critical element for public health emergency response. When such countries are faced with public health emergencies, they are unable to mount a formidable response to mitigate the health, economic and social consequences of these events. “A weak response portends danger for spread within countries and across borders. That is not good for national, continental and global health security,” Antara said.
Patrick Nguku, a regional coordinator of AFENET in Anglophone west Africa, said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weak health systems in many African countries.
He said African governments need to renew their historic pledge, made in April 2001, to allocate at least 15 percent of their annual budgets to the health sector.
“We have seen from COVID-19, some of these diseases can bring the whole society on a standstill and so it is everybody’s business to ensure that our governments stay committed to the 15 percent agenda,” Nguku said.
When there is critical investment in health system inclusive of training field epidemiologists, there can be lesser negative impacts of the outbreak of disease, he said.
Antara said that as countries, with support from donor agencies and the African Union, build their human capacities in epidemiology, AFENET has built a pool of epidemiologists who can be deployed quickly to respond to any public health emergency on the continent.
“On the continent, no single country can boast of enough public health workforce. We need to be each other’s keeper,” he said.