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IAEA Brings Together Experts from Africa to Increase Preparedness for Ebola and Other Zoonotic Diseases

Vienna, Austria

More than 150 participants from 40 African countries are meeting at the IAEA’s headquarters this week to share experiences and improve national surveillance systems for highly contagious zoonotic diseases, such as avian influenza and Ebola. (Photo: IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is bringing together African human health, veterinary and wildlife experts this week to strengthen early warning systems for managing animal-to-human, or zoonotic, disease outbreaks.  

More than 150 participants from 40 African countries are meeting at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna to share experiences in order to improve national surveillance networks for monitoring and containing the spread of highly contagious viruses, such as avian influenza, Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and monkeypox.

The 21-25 August meeting is part of a joint IAEA/Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) project initiated in 2014 during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. The project provides diagnostic equipment and training to African countries. The nuclear-derived polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology allows for the identification of viruses within a few hours and with great accuracy, and is vital to the rapid detection and control of transboundary animal- and zoonotic diseases. The project also aims to strengthen the network of veterinary laboratories on the continent.

Meeting participants included experts from the FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization of Animal Health (OIE), the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), the German Philipps-Universität Marburg, the Institut Pasteur International Network, and the Italian Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie (IZSVe). 

“It is uncertain when and where the next disease outbreak may occur, so it’s crucial for countries at risk, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, to prepare for the long-term,” said Shaukat Abdulrazak, Director of the Africa Division of the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Department.

Around 75 percent of human diseases originate from animals. Tracking the prevalence of viruses in wildlife that migrate across borders and extensive livestock populations in the African continent requires robust detection systems and good communication between wildlife, human and animal health professionals, so that containment measures can be taken early.

Human population growth and encroachment into remote areas, coupled with environmental factors such as climate change, have also increased the spread of animal diseases to humans.

“We have 16 million birds in Togo, so their health is very important to our health,” said meeting participant Yao Pataname Akpeli, Togo’s National Surveillance Director. The country received equipment and training from the IAEA in June to help contain an avian influenza outbreak.

“Early detection is the key,” said Trevor Shoemaker, an epidemiologist at CDC who was formerly based in Uganda. “You may not prevent the first one or two cases or deaths, but you can prevent additional people from being infected.”

While diagnostic capacities in Africa have increased sharply in the last 10 years – partly thanks to the international response to recent health crises – the coordination of responses to outbreaks remains a challenge in many parts of the continent.

“This is very important,” Shoemaker said. “Some countries might be well set up to collect samples and detect infections, but they might not have the resources to respond quickly; or the opposite: they perform response and containment very quickly, but may not have the diagnostic tests to follow the progression of the outbreak or identify and confirm new cases.”

The IAEA meeting aims to help close this gap by facilitating the networking of wildlife-, human- and animal- health authorities so that they can quickly share epidemiological and surveillance information.

“Ebola is still around. While we talk there may be an outbreak reported,” said Janusz Tadeusz Paweska, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa, who helped to establish diagnostic laboratory capacities in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. “Once you have an established network, you have a structure that makes it much faster to respond.”

The IAEA’s assistance to African countries to prepare for zoonotic diseases is funded by contributions from Japan, the United States, Norway and from the African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology (AFRA).

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