At a time when Ghana has recorded A3 Influenza in three Senior High Schools (SHSs), leading to the quarantine of some 400 students, the West African Health Organization (WAHO) has charged the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to prioritise the interplay between animal and human health, as well as the environment.
Director-General of WAHO, Professor Stanley Okolo, who made the call, stressed that infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which are transmitted between animals and humans, spread very fast and kill many people within a short time.
According to him, providing quality healthcare for animals would translate into healthier human beings.
Diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans, such as bird flu and tuberculosis, as some researchers have found 13 of such diseases, are responsible for 2.2 million human deaths every year.
Speaking at an event to climax the fourth Annual One Health Day, held in Lome, the capital of Togo, Prof. Okolo charged ECOWAS members to commit to ‘One Health’, which is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.
He cautioned that humans should not wait to the point where such diseases threaten the existence of humanity before acting.
Prioritizing animal healthcare
In Africa, where people rear animals at home for commercial reasons, he said the need to prioritize animal healthcare is more urgent.
He further reiterated the urgent need for countries to prepare for emergencies to prevent economic, human and other losses.
He also reminded countries that the sub-region was still faced with recurrent epidemics such as Lassa and yellow fevers, which calls for urgent action.
Prof. Okolo noted that WAHO’s responsibility is to make sure that countries are brought together, challenged, given support, as well as promote the right things that would give them that epidemic preparedness.
He called for increased awareness creation on the fact that diseases may emanate from animals and transmitted to humans.
ECOWAS is hotspot for emerging infectious diseases
West Africa is both a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases and a region where the burden of zoonotic diseases is particularly high.
The expeditious spread of transmissible diseases in West Africa is accelerated by the limited capacities of individual country health systems for efficient surveillance, early detection and rapid response to infectious disease outbreaks.
In this region, emerging and re-emerging diseases at the human-animal-ecosystems interface are occurring with increased frequency.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that of the 55 registered disease outbreaks that occurred in Africa over the last decade, 42 took place in West Africa.
These include highly contagious diseases that cross borders easily and have the potential to rapidly evolve into pandemics.
Working together in dealing with emerging diseases
Dr. Binta Diallo Tidiane, World Health Organisation (WHO) Resident Representative in Togo, emphasized the importance of working together in dealing with emerging diseases.
She noted that since diseases have been transferred from animals to humans, adopting a single approach to deal with the events was critical.
According to her, the WHO in 2017 set up the Global Health Security Programme to tackle emerging and re-emerging diseases since pandemics are ever becoming prevalent.
Joint effort between human, animal and environmental health
The Director of Africa Region for the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), Dr. Karim Tounkara, stressed that a joint effort to tackle human, animal and environmental health was required to effectively deal with emerging diseases.
According to him, the fact that pathogens move freely calls for well-coordinated action.
He pointed out that antimicrobial resistance is a challenge that must be tackled head-on.
70% of pathogens have origins in animals
Senior Health Specialist at the World Bank Dr. John Paul Clark noted that about 70% of all pathogens discovered in the past 20 years have their origins in animals.
He mentioned Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Avian Influenza, Ebola and Lassa Fever among others as some of the pathogens that have their origins in animals.
For him, timely prevention, detection, and response in times of epidemic outbreaks hold the key to effectively tackling the situation.
He pledged the continuous support of the World Bank to the programme.
The Executive Director of Regional Animal Health Centre (RAHC) of ECOWAS, Mrs Vivian Iwar, noted that it is difficult to discuss diseases without reference to animals.
She stated that more often than not, infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites that spread between animals and humans become a major challenge when it affects humans, citing Avian Influenza and Ebola as examples.
She expressed worry about antimicrobial resistance, saying it has become a major challenge and called for effective immunization.
Mrs Iwar drew attention to the importance of environmental health since the interplay between animal and human health takes place in the environment.
She said RAHC has prioritized seven diseases, including Anthrax, Rabies, Hemorrhagic Viruses, Zoonotic Tuberculosis, and Yellow Fever.
WAHO is the regional agency charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the health of the peoples in the sub-region through the initiation and harmonization of the policies of Member States, pooling of resources, and co-operation with one another and with others for a collective and strategic combat against the health problems of the sub-region.
It was established by the heads of state and governments of ECOWAS in 1987 as a specialized agency with the mandate to provide the highest health benefits to its populations.
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