DAKAR, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Africa's new continent-wide public health agency could help prevent a repeat of the disastrous Ebola epidemic by monitoring diseases across country borders and deploying a rapid task force at the first signs of an outbreak, health experts said.
The African Union (AU) launched the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) on Jan. 31 at its headquarters in Ethiopia. Epidemiologists began disease surveillance work there this month.
The agency will have regional centres equipped for lab testing in Egypt, Nigeria, Gabon, Zambia and Kenya, and will expand an emergency volunteer corps created during the Ebola epidemic to thousands of health workers across the continent.
"What the Africa CDC can truly contribute is to bring (international disease) response closer to the countries," said incoming director John Nkengasong, a virologist and senior official at the U.S. CDC.
The agency will focus on strengthening national health systems through its regional networks, Nkengasong said, making countries less reliant on overseas medical aid, staff and equipment during outbreaks.
Although the AU first proposed the idea for an African health agency in 2013, the Ebola epidemic in 2014-2015 sharpened its urgency and accelerated the planning, according to people involved.
International agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), were widely criticised for taking too long to respond to the Ebola outbreak, which killed over 11,300 people in West Africa.
Creating a response mechanism within Africa was a logical next step, experts said.
The director of disease control and prevention in Sierra Leone, one of the countries hit hardest by Ebola, said he thought the most important aspect of Africa CDC would be collaboration with other countries' health agencies.
"I think it's a very good idea so we can share information and work together," Foday Dafae told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding the biggest challenge would likely be coordination.
Other health experts also praised the move, but said Africa CDC's effectiveness could hinge on funding.
"The AU initiative is evidence that countries have taken stock of the Ebola crisis," said Mads Oyen, West and Central Africa emergency adviser for the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.
"However, in order for Africa CDC to be a strong organisation, it will require long-term political will and financial commitment by national governments, as well as strong support from donor institutions," he added.
The AU Commission has allocated about 0.5 percent of its operating budget to Africa CDC, and other funding will come from member states, partner countries and the private sector. The United States and China are among those supporting the initiative.
The U.S. CDC has advised the agency throughout its creation and will send two long-term advisors to the AU headquarters and support ten African epidemiologists in the regional centres.
The WHO has also provided technical assistance and will work closely with Africa CDC, said WHO Africa emergencies director Ibrahima Soce Fall, calling it a "very important step for the African region".
Experts said the agency's relationship with the WHO will be critical to avoid being perceived as competition.
Africa CDC will launch a five-year strategic plan in Addis Ababa at the end of March, and after that will build its staff.
"There will be challenges," said director Nkengasong. "But the public health opportunities are huge." (Reporting by Nellie Peyton; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/)