Disease control hub launched

Health ministers in West Africa have committed to a 10-year multimillion dollar plan to create a regional centre for disease control (CDC) with a high-level reference – advanced – lab to be based in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.

Despite the coincidence of the launch with the spread of the H1N1/09 virus, Evariste Mutabaruka, acting director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Multi Disease Surveillance Centre, also based in Ouagadougou, told IRIN a regional CDC has been in the planning for years.

“Occurrence of H1N1 has increased pandemic awareness and highlighted the importance of predicting emerging diseases and testing for them, but talk of the need for such a centre dates back two decades with active planning by the West Africa WHO office [in Brazzaville] starting in 2006,” Mutabaruka told IRIN.

Burkina Faso’s existing disease surveillance centre will serve as the region’s interim CDC until funding is raised to construct the new one.

The West Africa centre is intended to be the first of four African disease control hubs, with the others being Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), which will both be enhanced, as well as a new centre in Angola, according to planning documents.

WHO estimates more than 60 percent of deaths in West Africa are due to communicable diseases.

Mutabaruka told IRIN that the lack of trained lab technicians and facilities currently hampers diagnoses. “Something as simple as not knowing how to clean a microscope can lead to contaminated flawed lab results.”

Even with political commitment, it will be a “huge challenge, a long road” to train technicians to meet the centre’s goal of having 68 laboratory staff by 2019, he added.

The centre is expected to focus on communicable diseases, including onchocerciasis, meningitis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, other neglected tropical diseases, emergent diseases, epidemics, and potential pandemics.

When asked how the new centre will improve diagnoses and disease-tracking when there are already disease surveillance centres in Africa, the MDSC director told IRIN there is not enough cross-border collaboration and only one high-level reference lab in Africa, South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). “Countries currently miss out on vital opportunities for cross-border collaboration and coordination of responses to trans-boundary epidemics.”

Mutabaruka said the new West Africa disease control hub will help centralize data across borders through a password-protected information database, improve national labs through quality control, conduct research and epidemiological training and develop early-warning models to predict epidemics.