World Health Organization (WHO) Africa Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti has asked Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to expand production capacity to meet urgent continental demand for the jabs.
Dr Moeti’s appeal is part of a growing chorus of concern from the African region following the delays in vaccine shipments from manufacturing hubs in India and Europe to African countries.
The delays have been blamed on a Covid-19 spike that has forced the countries to put a temporary block on vaccine exports.
“Specifically, on COVID-19 vaccines, we strongly encourage pharmaceutical companies to expand their manufacturing capacities to overcome current supply shortages. We also encourage wealthy countries to share their doses, so that the most-at-risk populations in all countries can be protected, to save lives and speed-up the recovery from this global crisis,” she said on April 7, 2021.
Addressing participants during her World Health Day address, Dr Moeti admitted that the pandemic had exposed the harsh reality of vastly different health care systems and operational capacity between wealthy and economically struggling countries. Africa, she said, had borne the heaviest burden of this imbalance.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on inequalities between countries,” she said. “Amid shortages of essential supplies, African countries have been pushed to the back of the queue in accessing COVID-19 test kits, personal protective equipment and now vaccines,”Dr Moeti went on.
The medic noted that the continent had received a measly share of the newly developed vaccines since the start of the vaccination drives to protect people against severe disease.
“Of 548 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered worldwide, only 11 million or 2 percent, have been in Africa, whereas the continent accounts for around 17 percent of the global population,”said the WHO Africa boss.
In a candid speech, Dr Moeti further highlighted the uneven distribution of quality health care services among the 47 member states in the region whose WHO operations she heads.
“There are also inequities within countries. Discrimination based on gender, place of residence, income, educational level, age, ethnicity and disability all intersect to disadvantage vulnerable populations. Recent data from the 17 African countries of Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Comoros, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, eSwatini, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe show, for example, that a person with secondary school education is three times as likely to have access to contraception as someone who has not attended school,” she said.
Dr Moeti said maternal mortality was more prevalent in the poorer sections of the population.
“Those in the highest economic section or quintile are five times more likely to deliver their babies in health facilities and have their babies vaccinated with BCG compared to those in the lowest quintile,” she said.
Dr Moeti further called on global citizens to cooperate in setting up a vibrant new health ecosystem.
“I call on member states, partners, civil society, communities, and other stakeholders to intensify work with WHO to achieve Universal Health Coverage, and to invest in addressing the social and economic determinants of health, to tackle inequities and build a fairer, healthier world,” she said.
Her call comes as the world struggles to make sense of changed health risks and protocols in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that has so far claimed 2.87m lives out of 132m cases of infections recorded, with 75.2m recoveries.
“This World Health Day, WHO is calling on everyone to participate in building a fairer, healthier world,” she said.
Dr Moeti rooted for improvement of living standards as a solution for the health challenges regional members faced.
“To improve this situation, we need to act on the social and economic determinants of health, by working across sectors to improve living and working conditions, and access to education, particularly for the most marginalized groups,”she told attendees.
“Communities need to be engaged as partners, through their networks and associations, to shape and drive health and development interventions,” she added.
According to Dr Moeti, gaps in data collection, analysis and management had proven an obstacle to proper policy formulation and implementation as well as health system monitoring.
“A key challenge in overcoming inequities is limited data showing who is being missed and why. To address this, national health information systems need to capture age, sex and equity stratified data. This information can then be used to inform decision- and policy-making,” she said.
“At WHO, we are working with countries to strengthen capacities to collect, manage and use data, and to enhance monitoring and action to address avoidable inequities,” she added.
In 2020, Dr Moeti said the WHO had disseminated “technical guidance on gender, equity and COVID-19”, and “trained 30 country teams in gender and health equity integrated programming”.
“The teams are using skills gained to support equitable health response, including to deal with gender-based violence in the context of COVID-19,” she added.
Dr Moeti stressed that “investment is also needed to accelerate progress towards Universal Health Coverage, to protect individuals from financial hardship in accessing needed care and to improve service coverage”.
She lauded the region’s member states for starting the process of reform in the most disadvantaged health care sub-sectors.
“Most African countries have initiated reforms in these areas believing that these reforms will in turn contribute to building more resilient health systems and societies. Moving forward, leaders need to work together to address inequities in their own countries and abroad in the spirit of international solidarity ,”said the UN health body’s continental spokesperson.
Learn more on the report entitled Wealth-related inequalities in the coverage of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health interventions in 36 countries in the African Region, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2020; 98:394-405. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2471/BLT.19.249078