Addis Ababa, 30 September 2021 – Africa can save thousands of lives and millions of dollars every year by prioritizing investment in infectious diseases, other than COVID-19, that affect a large number of children under five across the continent, according to a new report.
The advent of COVID-19 has already disrupted the vaccine administration cycle for many infectious diseases. Many more people could die of other causes while COVID-19 could indirectly result in an increasing burden of other health challenges.
The key findings of the report on ‘Going Beyond the Big Three: Assessing the economic impact of infectious diseases in Africa’ by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and Pfizer Inc. were presented at a policy roundtable yesterday. The report assesses the economic impact of diarrheal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections, which receive little attention due to the disproportionately large focus of public investment on the ‘Big Three’ infectious diseases (malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS).
Findings indicate that the cost of action on diarrheal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections is much lower than the cost of inaction, with multiple immediate and long-term benefits at the individual, societal and economic levels.
The report presents a “strong economic argument” for African member States to continue to invest in other infectious diseases. It reveals that preventing child mortality from both diseases generates an eight-fold return on investment in future decades, yet costs only 0.03 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) per year between 2022-2030. The benefits include a reduced burden on household income, fewer hospital visits and higher productivity due to low morbidity and mortality.
‘A compelling case for investment’
Opening the roundtable, ECA’s Director for Regional Integration and Trade Division, Mr. Stephen Karingi said: “With the world’s attention on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, action on these two deadly diseases is likely to get further deprioritized. Our report provides a compelling case for continued and even greater investment in tackling these diseases, which affect many African countries.”
Benefits are clear, he added, providing up to 90 per cent coverage for diarrheal diseases generates at least $4 for every dollar spent. Mr. Karingi continued: “The investment required to obtain these benefits is a small fraction of the GDP, which will also save the lives of many children.”
Delivering her welcome remarks, Ms. Caroline Roan, President of the Pfizer Foundation, said: “Infections diseases create shockwaves beyond the health sector, which the world is experiencing today, but there is hope. The global move toward universal health coverage provides an important opportunity for governments in developing countries to incorporate infectious diseases programmes within their health agendas. But to be successful, governments must be thoughtful about how to allocate resources: invest in health care now to recoup the substantial benefits in the future.”
The roundtable included a panel discussion on ‘Combatting other infectious diseases in Africa in the time of COVID-19’ with representatives of governments, intergovernmental agencies and academia, weighing in on appropriate interventions to address the economic burden of infectious diseases and improve health outcomes for all.
On the panel, Namibia’s Minister of Health and Social Services, Hon. Dr. Kalumbi Shangula, outlined challenges related to infrastructure, finance and human resource, which hampered his country’s ability to provide the ideal health services to its citizens. He said: “But we are engaged in the process to overcome these [challenges]. It is an ongoing process and we have to keep working on it. That way, we will be able to [one day] say how we tackle the issue of lower respiratory tract infections and diarrheal diseases.”
Presenting the report’s findings, its lead author Dr. Lesong Conteh said: “Oral rehydration therapy, water supply and antibiotics have the highest return on investment for both illnesses. Scaling up healthcare for both from baseline to national targets in Nigeria will pay for itself three times over in terms of averting GDP losses due to sick children under five.”
‘A policy toolkit’
In her closing remarks, Ms. Edlam Yemeru, ECA’s Director for the Gender, Poverty and Social Policy Division said: “We are developing a policy toolkit on the Nigeria-specific cost of action and inaction for other member states to replicate. This will generate equally compelling evidence on the returns on investment of public health interventions on both diseases to inform policies and actions.”
The report aims to help prioritize policy interventions towards preventing diarrheal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections, which have been sidelined by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.