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Africa and China: walking toward a healthy future

In a previous life when I was a national immunisation programme manager in Ghana, I saw firsthand the challenges that many African states face in delivering healthcare.

Recently, while attending the ministerial forum on China-Africa health development, representing the GAVI Alliance, a global organisation whose mission is to save children’s lives and protect people’s health by increasing access to immunisation, I was struck by the common legacy that China and countries across Africa share in overcoming such obstacles, and the important gains that have been made.

China and African countries also share a vision for the future: one where all citizens have a chance to lead healthy and productive lives. Our governments understand the African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

To forge the path ahead, dozens of health ministers from across Africa and high-level Chinese government officials met at the ministerial forum on China-Africa health development in Beijing, China last week. They explored ways to strengthen their partnership towards greater health gains across the continent.

Ministers at the forum also signed the Beijing Declaration of the Ministerial Forum on China-Africa Health Development, which sets a vision for a continued partnership to address a number of pressing health issues that affect Uganda and other African countries disproportionately.

Among these are HIV/Aids, malaria, schistosomiasis, reproductive health, immunisation and vaccine-preventable diseases. The declaration also highlights efforts to address the shortage of healthcare workers and increase joint research efforts.

Moving forward, China-African cooperation will aim to align with African countries’ priorities as well as national and regional development plans. These new actions at the forum build on the long-standing health partnership between China and African countries, which began when China first sent medical teams to the continent 50 years ago.

Since then, China has worked with countries to establish hospitals, clinics and malaria control centers in many African countries as well as sharing technical expertise to help address health issues.

Recognising these past efforts, officials at the forum emphasised that they are entering a “new era” of Sino-African health cooperation that will meet the health needs and priorities of African countries more effectively, including Uganda.

By working together as partners, China and African countries can help develop sustainable, local solutions to health challenges. Addressing shortages of doctors, nurses and health technicians and improving health facilities are just some of the ways that the partnership can drive greater health impacts across the continent.

Additionally, China and African countries are exploring ways to increase access to high-quality, low-cost health technologies produced in China that can make a public health impact. China’s partnership with Africa draws on the lessons it has learned from improving the health of its own citizens, and is generating solutions to many health issues, issues which continue to affect millions of Africans.

Although many countries on the continent have made progress in increasing access to vaccines, many children still remain unimmunised. Through advances in disease surveillance, service delivery and research and development, China has reduced childhood deaths and illness from diseases such as polio, which was once widespread.

Another example is China’s partnership with the GAVI Alliance to increase access to immunisation against hepatitis B, a disease that can cause chronic liver infection and cancer. Just a decade ago, hepatitis B infected one in ten Chinese children.

Today, less than one per cent of children under five are chronic carriers. Such an improvement shows the dramatic gains that can be achieved by expanding access to immunisation. Through sharing best practices, technical expertise and innovations, China and Africa’s partnership can work towards addressing other health priorities across the continent.

Chinese and African leaders at the forum further pledged to develop a strategy that is responsive to the needs and priorities of African countries, and which invests in country-led development.

The Ugandan government, like many of its counterparts across Africa, aims to create a health agenda that is led by African leaders and health professionals, which puts the country on a path toward sustainable progress.

In May, when I joined African and Chinese officials at the international roundtable on China-Africa health collaboration in Botswana, we engaged in similar consultations to help inform policies and initiatives for the partnership moving forward.

Chinese and African partners will work closely with multilateral and international organisations to help strengthen and scale-up joint efforts. Health plays a key role in reducing poverty and helping the world’s poorest communities build self-sufficiency and accelerate their own development. When people are healthy, they can reach their fullest potential.

Through collaboration on health, China, Uganda and other African countries will help advance the wellbeing and prosperity of all of their citizens. China and African countries have built a strong partnership over the past 50 years and, together, they can achieve even more in the decades to come.

Dr. Mercy Ahun is the special representative for GAVI- eligible countries.

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