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New PEPFAR boss urges global health community to learn from African research

Dr John Nkengasong, new head of the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), has encouraged African researchers to build regional networks to ensure their work is taken seriously, adding that the continent’s knowledge of monkeypox should be used as a catalyst to build better continental co-operation.

Before the disease recently erupted in parts of Europe and the United States, it had been endemic in West and Central Africa for years, reports News24.

African scientists have complained that the global community had largely ignored the disease until it broke out in other parts of the world, and that their expertise on the disease had been ignored.

Speaking in Johannesburg during a visit to the country after taking the job six weeks ago, Nkengasong said: “African researchers really know what to do with this virus. They have been doing it forever because it was localised in several parts of Africa. As we move forward, we must ask ourselves: what is global health, and is health global?

“Global health is something that affects everybody. With COVID, within 20 days, 65 countries were affected at the same time. That is global health. It is not the practice where somebody from a rich country goes to a poor country to help them address their health concerns.”

That, he added, was the fundamental shift. “If we do that… it is important to be humble enough to learn from regional and national experiences, like the monkeypox. Like, what have Africans done to localise it? What is it that helped Africa identify the Omicron variant? Regional and national knowledge in Africa has to be promoted.”

He said African scientists needed a “vehicle to promote their own findings and knowledge and vision”.

“Working through regional bodies like the Africa Centres for Disease Control and African Union is a way to collectively look at their own progress, and advance and share among themselves, as a region. Africa is a continent of 1.3bn people and with many research institutions. If they coordinate themselves around their regional structures, the world will pay attention.”

HIV/Aids response

The US Government contacted Nkengasong about the PEPFAR job in July 2021. Previously, he was head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Cameroonian-born Nkengasong was one of the founding leaders of PEPFAR and developed the programme’s laboratory systems across the continent.

He said: “We fought HIV/Aids for more than 40 years. I have more than 25 years in HIV/Aids programmes, and also gave a lot of thought to where PEPFAR is putting in resources. Eighty to ninety percent of their resources are on the continent.

“It also occurred to me that in the future, because there was a vaccine for COVID, it was a matter of time before we beat the virus. (But) that it might require many more years to fight HIV/Aids because we have been at it for 40 years.”

He said knowing that young women were still vulnerable to the disease made his decision to join PEPFAR easier.

Adolescent girls aged 15-19 are up to eight times more likely to be infected than their boys. The number of new infections among adolescent girls and young women in South Africa is estimated at around 850 a week.


News24 article – African researchers must be trusted by global health community, says head of US Aids relief plan (Restricted access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Public health in Africa: Neglect, dependency and now a ‘moral tragedy’


Africa fears monkeypox vaccine side-lining as disease spreads


Africa Centres for Disease Control urges more testing and mask wearing


SA will send team to Washington to lobby PEPFAR funding cut


PEPFAR cuts may cost 9m years of lost life in SA and Ivory Coast




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