Former Guinea Bissau’s Minister of Health Magda Robalo talks about the first International Conference on Public Health in Africa

In December of 2021, the first International Public Health Conference of Africa (CPHIA) took place. The event marked a new page in the continent’s trajectory in debating the challenges that African nations face in combating diseases and problems in the health system problems. The Conference was also expected to bring ideias about facing the coronavirus and means of aiding the population affected by it. 

Although 2021 was less chaotic due to the presence of vaccines and greater adaptation to the new virus, the year ended with a significant number of  infections and deaths. When it comes to Africa, Reuters estimates that there were 234,000 deaths from covid on the continent in 2021 and that the highest number of daily infections are happening in regions of sub-Saharan Africa, such as Sudan, Eritrea, Chad and Niger. One of the biggest challenges facing these nations is the access to vaccines. 

In addition to having to live with the new coronavirus, African populations continue to face preexisting diseases. Infectious diseases such as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) need great attention so that their spread is controlled and those infected can have a proper medical care. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) of 2021 stipulate that at least 2.75 million HIV-positive people worldwide are children and teenagers up to 19 years old and that 60% of the world’s cases are concentrated in Africa and with the impact of the new coronavirus, HIV-positive people found it more difficult to access treatment and medicines that help control the disease. 

Other infectious diseases are also reason of concern, such as malaria and Ebola. The WHO states that in 2019, 94% of the world’s malaria cases were concentrated in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. In the West African region there was an Ebola outbreak between 2013 and 2016. The most affected nations were Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Republic of Guinea. The number of infected reached almost 29 thousand people and 11,300 deaths. The data reflect the living conditions to which a large part of the continent’s population is subjected. The absence of a basic sanitation system and the difficult access to clean water resources increase the chances of infection by contagious diseases and violate the human right to clean water and sanitation established by the UN in 2010 through resolution 64/A/RES/64 /292, of 07.28.2010. Given the current situation, the First International Conference on Public Health in Africa became a space for a dialogue that proposes to bring solutions to the continent. To talk more about the event, Atlantico talked with Magda Robalo, former Minister of Health of Guinea Bissau. 

Atlantico- How did the idea for the Conference come about and what were the expectations? How did the event address the distinctions between African sub-regions that face sometimes quite different problems? 

Magda Robalo– The Conference was a brilliant idea to debate central topics such as infectious diseases, especially COVID, which is the biggest concern of the moment, in addition to making an assessment of the current situation of these diseases and proposing innovative ideas for combating them. The event also aims to build or strengthen a health system for the continent. The Conference was an opportunity to launch a new order on public health in Africa, to shed light on what Africa can bring in terms of a scientific and technical authority on health problems in African lands. It is necessary to see Africa as a continent and not as a country. It has its sub-regions and each of these regions has its specificities. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution. It is necessary to adapt the solutions to each sub-region, taking into account its political, social, cultural and economic reality. 

The Conference was an opportunity to launch a new order on public health in Africa.” 

Atlantico- The covid-19 pandemic has harmed many nations around the world. When it comes to the vaccine, the WHO Secretary-General, Tedros Adhanom, said this year that there was a “vaccine apartheid”, where the richest nations had more of them. How can the Conference contribute to the production, development and distribution of vaccines for the African continent? 

Magda Robalo- I agree with what Tedros said about the vaccine apartheid. It was scandalous the way in which the countries of the global south were left without access to vaccines, receiving doses in small quantities and with imprecise arrival times, with a short expiration date and at higher prices than for European countries. This was a scandal of public health, of lack of international solidarity and of understanding between communities. The Conference was an opportunity for Africa to share with the rest of the world its progress in establishing a drug agency to immunize populations and its progress in producing vaccines. The African continent has scientific leadership and the ability to produce pharmaceutical products. What happens is that for many decades, if not centuries, Africa was dependent on the external market to have access to these medicines or the inputs to manufacture them. 

Atlantico- Before the pandemic, the African continent was already facing a battle against several diseases. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) found, for example, that the majority of AIDS cases in the world are concentrated in Africa.  How can the Conference help to strengthen preventive actions against this disease? 

Magda Robalo- In relation to AIDS, the African continent is the epicenter. There are many lessons from Covid-19 that can be applied to tackling AIDS. Drugs to treat or prolong the lives of HIV-positive people are not produced in Africa. So the impetus created by covid 19 and the Conference brought together several scientists from different areas in a virtual platform promising to propose solutions that are not limited to covid, but that also seek ways to fight AIDS, which is a disease many times neglected and it is not something new in the annals of African history. 

“The African continent has scientific leadership and the ability to produce pharmaceuticals products.” 

Atlantico- Public health also presupposes infrastructure, sanitation and education in basic conditions, as a way of preventing communicable and non-communicable diseases. These areas encompass a set of actions, from access to drinking water, healthy food and plumbing networks. How could this be brought to the continent’s billions of people? 

Magda Robalo- The continent has many challenges. There are many basic needs that need to be addressed. The lack of roads, for example, makes it difficult to move health units, the lack of water and sanitation contribute to the proliferation of diseases that could have already been eliminated. A coordinated action is needed not only in the health sectors but also in other development sectors if the continent is to prosper.

 Atlantico- What are your expectations regarding the Conference and the future of the continent? 

 Magda Robalo- They are very good. I have a lot of hope in the African continent, in youth. I think the future is in Africa. The future lives in Africa. And also in the figure of the woman. We have to start from a strong leadership centered on the continent’s potential so that from there we can embrace the world in a way that we are in a position of equality  with other nations and not in a relationship of dependence. 

“I have a lot of hope in the African continent, in youth. I think the future is in Africa. “