Young Africans are stepping up in support of their continent’s New Public Health Order
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want to involve young Africans in public health governance. How did this come about and how will it work?
‘The COVID pandemic has shone a bright light on our continent’s frail health systems and on the enormous health inequities across the globe. It made me realise that, as a health security specialist, I must step up to help save lives and rebuild livelihoods here in Africa,’ says Frankline Sevidzem Wirsiy, a young epidemiologist from Cameroon. This kind of spirit and resolve is exactly what the African Union (AU) and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) are looking for in their current attempt to involve the young generation in public health governance across the continent. Wirsiy himself has been appointed a member of the Africa CDC’s Youth Advisory Team for Health, the YAT4H.
In September 2022, Africa CDC called for a holistic New Public Health Order as a basis for attaining long-term preparedness for future pandemics and strong regional health security. As part of this, it launched new initiatives to mobilise Africa’s young people to get involved in line with Aspiration 1 of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 on health – getting young people involved in health issues. To achieve this, Africa CDC called for “action-oriented partnerships” with development partners. On behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) implements the Strengthening Crisis and Pandemic Response in Africa project, committed to the advancement of Africa’s health security by enhancing the organisational resilience of Africa CDC. Part of this commitment is technical support to Africa CDC’s endeavour to get young people involved.
According to Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, Africa CDC Deputy Director General,
Africa CDC is articulating a youth policy that will ensure that youth are part and parcel of what we do in the implementation of the New Public Health Order.
Why youth involvement is crucial for Africa’s health security
Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70% of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30. As of 2022, around 40% of the population was aged 15 years and younger, compared to a global average of 25%. This demographic share of youth in Africa’s 1.4 billion population inevitably means that youth inclusion is requisite for the health security agenda, particularly when the five pillars of the New Public Health Order contain strengthening African vaccine manufacturing and its public health workforce. Dr Ouma explains why:
What you do, if it does not specifically target the youth, then it cannot be successful. But if you target the youth, then your messaging will reach the majority of the population and eventually the whole community.
In recent years, several young people in Africa, mostly young professionals and health-tech founders, developed pathbreaking new technologies and enterprises for Africa’s health landscape. Examples are Ola Orekunrin Brown, a medical doctor and helicopter pilot who at the age of 21 founded Flying Doctors Nigeria, West Africa’s first indigenous air ambulance service, and Ismail Badjie, founder and CEO of Innovarx Global Health, a healthcare solutions company turning quality healthcare from privilege to right-for-all in The Gambia.
Young people like these two are game-changers when it comes to advancing population health in Africa. But young people’s role should not be confined to local health-tech innovations alone. Policy and health advocacy, active involvement in health governance, and leadership are other vital areas that young Africans must get involved in, notes Ibraheem Sanusi, GIZ, who heads the Strengthening Crisis and Pandemic Response in Africa project:
The future trajectory of Africa’s health security is in the hands of its current and emerging young public health professionals, health advocates, and policymakers
The youth pre-conference served as catalyst
In December 2022, Africa CDC convened an inaugural Youth Pre-Conference at the margins of the 2nd annual International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA) 2022 held in Kigali, Rwanda.
Under the theme “Meaningful Youth Engagement for Advancing Sustainable Health Security in Africa”, 200 young African health professionals and advocates drawn from a pool of 3,500 applicants converged in Kigali to kick-start a long-term strategic engagement between Africa CDC and young people, to advance the full implementation of the New Public Health Order and thereby, drive health security in Africa and globally.
The reactions and outcomes were predictably exciting.
Attending the Youth Pre-Conference was personally important to me. I hope to see a new way of doing things, a unique, collaborative, open and inclusive space for multi-stakeholder and intersectional engagements within public health in Africa.
,said one of the participants, Kerigo Odada, a female lawyer specialising in physical and mental health rights. In her view, young people should from now on actively use this platform to advocate for a ‘human rights-based approach to public health interventions, global health governance, and health systems financing.’
A Youth Advisory Team for Health (YAT4H)
The youth pre-conference provided an excellent opportunity for Africa CDC to harvest synthesised insights and recommendations from the young people who attended. These included demands for inclusive youth engagement in the public health discourse; youth mainstreaming in decision-making and accountability; collaborative public health network on the continent and capacity building of emerging public health leaders.
On January 31, 2023, only 51 days after the event, Africa CDC responded to these recommendations by announcing its inaugural YAT4H. The five-person team started its work on February 1, 2023, and pursues a 4-point overarching agenda:
Support Africa CDC to have a meaningful and inclusive engagement with young people; institutionalize youth engagement within the Africa CDC on public health issues in Africa; create a forum for inter-generational dialogue; and advocate for mainstreaming of issues affecting the youth into decision-making within Africa CDC.
The team members, three young women and two young men aged between 18 and 35, were selected from five African Union regions. Since every YAT4H team will only serve for 12 months, they had to hit the ground running. To get the YAT4H up to speed, the German-supported programme organised an orientation workshop for them on 11 – 13 April 2023 at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. The workshop aimed to onboard the YAT4H to the AU system, to Africa CDC’s mandate and its New Public Health Order; to jointly define priorities for the YAT4H in 2023; and to grow as a team.
Wirsiy is happy with what the newly appointed advisors managed to achieve:
We quickly designed a list of SMART activities capable of delivering fast results. As we charge forward, the team will share constant advisory notes with Africa CDC Director General. Most important – our task is to ensure that Africa CDC’s strategies and initiatives are inclusive and adequately address young people’s health concerns.
How much will the first YAT4H be able to achieve in one year? Stay tuned for a sequel to this article in February 2024.
Shakir Akorede and Huong Le, May 2023