By: Thandiwe Faith Kubere

The Ministry of Health, supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), held a briefing session of strengthening the health security in Lesotho and ensuring the country’s readiness and preparedness in case of public health emergencies or diseases outbreaks.

Led by the following statements, “We must stop the cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemic preparedness”, “We don’t want Covid-19 to repeat”, “We don’t want people dying from lack of oxygen to repeat”, and “Ultimately, the greatest threat to global health security is the fact that billions of people lack access to essential health services. Universal health coverage and health security are two sides of the same coin”, the mission was to ensure that strategic ways are sought and put in place so that the country is capacitated enough and is not left in despair at the coming of epidemics.

The African region apparently faces a high burden of public health emergencies with increasing complexity. COVID-19 has again exposed gaps – limited health workforce, poor information management, and weak health systems. Therefore, urgency at the country level to strengthen emergency prevention, preparedness, and response and health system resilience capacities is essential.

During the emergency flagship mission, it was stated that there was no better time to strengthen preparedness and readiness for future Public Health Emergencies apart from the current. Spurred by the devastating impact of Covid 19 pandemic on fragile health systems, African health ministers this week adopted a new eight-year strategy to transform health security and emergency response in the region. According to the Presentation shared by the stakeholders, the regional strategy for Health and Emergencies 2022-2030, endorsed during the seventy-second session of the WHO, Regional Committee for Africa in Lomē, Togo, aims to reduce the health and socio-economic impacts of public health emergencies.

The report states, “Globally, the African region reports the heaviest burden of public health emergencies, with more than 100 such events occurring annually. Prior to the emergence of covid-19, the top causes of epidemics in the region were Cholera, measles, yellow fever, and others.” The outbreaks undoubtedly put health sectors around the world on their toes in ensuring the safety of communities they serve and ensuring that there is proper access  to medication when needed. However, the lack of preparedness and cooperation between relevant organizations on such issues continues to be a threat which continually pressures the sectors, pours down heavily on the economy whereas preparedness could help avoid such cases. Prepare addresses IHR gaps, anticipate/Predict risk, plan for contingencies, and prepare human and financial resources.

Therefore, the flagship missions, with a panel of experts and stakeholders from different organizations, discussed on building the existing country’s capacity under three components, which are prepare, detect and respond. Under Prepare, the plan is to ensure that Africa leads the way for protecting the world against pandemics by promoting the resilience of the health system.

 Meanwhile, Detect seeks to reimagine the Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (IDSR) to enable quicker detection of disease outbreaks and further transforming African Surveillance Systems. It intends to scale-up IDSR Implementation, conduct data management and informatics, build the workforce for surveillance, and ensure sustainable funding and Government-ownership.

Additionally, Respond aims to strengthen and utilize Response Groups for Emergencies by placing 3,000 African responders who are ready to deploy within the first 24-48 hours of an emergency. Under respond, there are well-trained national multidisciplinary emergency workforce, Emergency responses are properly coordinated through the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre PHEOC, Field logistics are available, and the public is well informed because everything starts and ends at community level.

Moreover, in response to a request from the Government of Lesotho, WHO sent a scooping mission to Lesotho with the following objectives: Jointly identify priority areas of working together to ensure health security as well as engaging with government and partners to articulate a shared vision for health security. 

On that note, the expected outcomes of the scooping mission are: reviewing the level of preparedness and capacity for response in the country; Identify gaps and priority actions to address gaps and improve health security in the country; a draft casted roadmap for accelerated improvement of preparedness, detection, and response to emergencies in the next 2 years; and lastly advocacy with government and partners for a shared vision for health security including strengthening health system resilience. The contents of the roadmap will identify the strengths, gaps in the health sector, priorities to address the key identified gaps, activities under the different priorities and resources needed (budget), responsible entity for each priorities and anticipated partners to support implementation.

With the health organizations seeking ways of capacitate the health sector, the identified gaps are: the Multi-Hazard Response Plan is outdated; the risk calendar is not used to inform preparedness and readiness response; NAPHS 2018-2023 are not endorsed and limited domestic funding for its activities; some contingency plans are not disseminated to stakeholders and not tested, there is non-existence of Public Health Institute, PHEOC-infrastructure has been setup without human resource (meaning there is lack of people doing ground work, especially in communities), there is poor multi-sectoral coordination of different sectors and resources, also, some acts are outdated and need to be reviewed to accommodate latest issues.

Therefore, to mitigate those challenges, seven priority areas were suggested to be put in place for action. Priority 1 stresses on enhancing Multi-sectoral Coordination Mechanisms for IHR implementation. Priority 2 suggests on legislation and policy reforms. Priority 3 advocates for increased funding for emergency preparedness. Priority 4 deliberates on independent assessment of the country capacities. Priority 5 states Risk Assessment should be conducted and the country’s risk profile should be updated. Priority 6 suggests on contributing to building of resilient health systems to ensure continuity of essential services in emergencies. And lastly, Priority 7 is establishing public health coordination and response mechanisms.

Presenting on Transforming African Surveillance Systems (TASS) Flagship Initiative, Dr Charles Okot Lukoya, WHO AFRO, enlightened that the strengths of the project includes the adaptation of the 3rd edition IDSR technical guidelines. Again step-down training to all sites was completed. It also designated and capacitated 9 POEs and established cross border collaboration and data sharing framework with South Africa, trained surveillance personnel at all levels, deployed DHIS2 for reporting at all levels, Event-based surveillance [EBS] was implemented, available National Health Laboratory Policy, informing laboratory network functions including the National Reference Laboratories and One Health. Additionally, there is a comprehensive sample referral and transportation system for human health.

Therefore, with the plans in hand, the health partners aim on strengthening the health sector and ensuring the wellbeing of the society.