Millions of people die every year in Africa from preventable diseases and conditions largely because of lack of access to life-saving health services and technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the situation, pointing to the urgent need to build resilience in the currently weak health systems on the continent.
Emerging health technologies could contribute to alleviating the health challenge in Africa, but only if these are well developed, tested and deployed (where these are proven to work and are safe) on the continent.
On October 29 2021, the Platform for Advocacy and Action on Health Technologies in Africa (Health Tech Platform) held discussions with Parliamentarians from 19 African countries on the role that they need to play in the ongoing efforts to develop, test and deploy emerging health technologies on the continent to tackle some of the persisting and emerging health challenges in Africa.
Speaking at the forum, which was part of the annual convening of the Network of African Parliamentary Committees of Health (NEAPACOH), AFIDEP’s Dr. Rose Oronje informed parliamentarians that the African Union has prioritised various emerging technologies with potential to improve health on the continent including: “omic” technologies (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics); e-health solutions; artificial intelligence; use of drones; geospatial modelling; additive manufacturing, among others.
She added that a recent landscape study conducted by the Health Tech Platform revealed that there are many research groups around the continent developing, testing or piloting various emerging technologies aimed at tackling persisting or emerging health issues. Some of the technologies being developed, tested or piloted on the continent include: gene drives for Malaria control and elimination, genome editing, data science/data analytics, artificial intelligence, monoclonal antibodies, among others.
While the ongoing efforts are commendable, Dr. Oronje noted that Parliamentarians could play a key role in addressing the many challenges hindering progress on these efforts on the continent including: limited involvement/participation of Africans in technology development; limited knowledge among key stakeholders and the public; opposition to the development of some of the technologies; and limited priority and investments in these technologies by African governments.
She appealed to Parliamentarians to: engage health research institutions in their countries to understand ongoing research on emerging health technologies; ensure allocation of resources by their governments for the development, testing and deployment of emerging health technologies; undertake legal reforms needed to facilitate research on emerging health technologies; advocate for prioritization of research and investments in emerging health technologies; and sensitize communities on the value of emerging health technologies.
Zeroing on some of the tools being developed for Malaria control and elimination, which include gene drives for Malaria elimination, testing of the use of mass administration of the Ivermectin drug, use of attractive toxic sugar baits for killing Malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, vaccines, and use of drones in larvicide control, Dr. Oronje said that in countries where the current legal framework does not provide for the planned research, such as is the case with Uganda as regards the planned research on gene drives for Malaria elimination, Parliamentarians need to take a leadership role in steering the legal reforms needed.
In discussions, Parliamentarians acknowledged their important role in supporting the testing and application of emerging technologies with potential to improve health in their countries. They were keen to understand how they can be involved in the African Union’s Development Agency (AUDA)’s ongoing efforts to support countries in addressing gaps in their regulatory frameworks to facilitate the development and testing of gene drives for Malaria control and elimination. The forum requested the Platform to prepare and share a policy briefing on emerging health technologies that will be circulated to Parliamentarians to create awareness on the issue and inform their next steps.