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Better information systems needed in Africa to strengthen health services – UN official

Women and their infants at a clinic in Lilongwe, Malawi.
IRIN/Laura Lopez Gonzalez
Women and their infants at a clinic in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Better information systems needed in Africa to strengthen health services – UN official

African countries must improve the ways in which they collect, organize and transmit health information to their citizens, a United Nations official said today at a regional meeting in Luanda, Angola.

In his report presented to the UN World Health Organization’s (WHO) 62nd session of its Regional Committee for Africa, WHO Regional Director for the continent, Luis Sambo, also highlighted the challenges facing countries to produce good quality and timely information to their cities.

Among these are efforts and initiatives that seek to acquire health information, which are fragmented across sectors, levels, projects, disciplines and specialties. Other challenges include poor generation of evidence to implement policies and a lack of collaboration among stakeholders to analyze and share data and evidence.

To address these challenges, Dr. Sambo recommended that each country establish an online platform to archive and monitor national information on health. A clear road map and timeline should be established for this process, he added, while assuring African countries that WHO is ready to provide detailed advice and technical support on this process.

The creation of each online platform, called a National Health Observatory (NHO), should involve and coordinate all health stakeholders in each country, the WHO official said, including public health policymakers, experts, and international partners.

In addition, countries that have already established NHOs should ensure that these are meeting the specific needs of their countries and are used to share and use important information that will lead to better health for Africans.

During his presentation, Dr. Sambo also underscored that African countries should draw from resources from global health initiatives (GHIs), which target specific diseases, to strengthen their health systems.

“The dramatic increase in the number of GHIs means that countries need to improve how they work with different stakeholders in the health sector,” WHO stated in a news release on Dr. Sambo’s report. Pooling resources from different sources would lead to good quality, integrated health services.

Sharing information among countries is also vital to prevent the spread of diseases, Dr. Sambo said, noting that although countries are making efforts to detect and control the international spread of infectious diseases, more needs to be done to effectively respond to them.

In particular, Dr. Sambo underlined the importance of countries implementing their plans under the International Health Regulations (IHR), which were agreed to by all African countries in 2007. While 43 out of the 46 Member States of the WHO African Region have conducted capacity assessment in line with IHR requirements, none has fully implemented their national IHR plans.

IHR aim to quickly identify an outbreak or any other public health threat, including chemical and radiological hazards that could have an international impact, so that a fast and effective response can be organized.

To implement the IHR plan, Dr. Sambo recommended countries carry out needs assessments to map unmet needs, mobilize and allocate adequate human and financial resources, strengthen surveillance systems and health laboratory capacities, and empower IHR focal points with the skills and resources that will ensure timely verification and notification of public health events to governments and WHO.

He also advised that, as a first step, countries should request a two-year extension to enable full implementation of IHR core capacities by 2014.

The WHO Regional Committee for Africa is the Organization’s governing body in the continent. There are currently 46 Member States in the region, and the Committee’s main functions entail formulating regional policies and programmes, and supervising the activities of the regional office.