New One Health Centre in Africa joins global efforts to prevent future pandemics

Annett Günther, the German ambassador to Kenya, and Jimmy Smith, ILRI’s director general, at the inauguration of the One Health Centre in Africa (photo credit: ILRI/Paul Karaimu).

This post was developed by Ekta Patel and Geoffrey Njenga, and edited by Paul Karaimu.

This year the global One Health Day, which is celebrated today, is especially poignant because nearly 189 countries are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and people in many countries continue to face movement restrictions or renewed lockdowns, in attempts to manage the disease. The negative impacts of COVID-19 have been felt in every corner of the globe with livelihoods destroyed and more than one million lives lost.  

Today, One Health, which calls for a multidisciplinary and multisectoral approach to address public health issues, is being proposed as a way of managing the current global pandemic and preventing future ones. The newly launched One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre in Africa (OHRECA) at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, is aiming to contribute towards addressing neglected zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, food safety and emerging infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is facing complex challenges at the interface of humans, animals and the environment. By year 2100, the continent is projected to be home to three billion people. An increase in urbanization, environmental degradation and encroachment of protected areas is expected to accompany this increase in population. These changes will lead to increased interaction between humans, wildlife and domestic animals raising the chance of zoonotic disease transmission making the continent a vulnerable region for epidemics and pandemics. More than 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin and close to 71% of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. One Health is a suitable approach to tackle these challenges. 

Speaking at the launch of OHRECA on 22 Oct 2020, Annett Günther, the German ambassador to Kenya, who was chief guest, called for ‘better networking and better cross-disciplinary actions between One Health partners in Africa and beyond who will work with the One Health Centre.’ Günther, further added that disease outbreaks like Ebola, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and now COVID-19 require a One Health approach to mitigate future risks. 

Jimmy Smith, ILRI’s director general, noted that COVID-19 was not the reason for launching the centre. ‘The conceptualization and planning of this centre preceded the pandemic. But COVID-19 makes the need for the centre much more compelling,’ he said. Smith added that by launching OHRECA, ILRI’s goal is not to reinvent the wheel, but rather in partnership with others to make the wheel run smoother and faster. ‘The centre will add value to ongoing collective efforts to accelerate the progress towards vastly reducing the economic and social cost of zoonotic diseases in Africa.’ 

Serge Nzietchueng, One Health coordinator at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the  United Nations (FAO), praised OHRECA’s plans to focus on zoonotic disease prevention and control strategies but emphasized the need for the centre to support the development of vaccines and diagnostics tests. ‘This means that at the country level we all have to strengthen the capacity in genomics and informatics to develop rapid diagnostics tests including aspects of risk assessments.’ 

Bernard Bett, OHRECA’s team leader, gave an overview of the centre’s research plans and addressed the importance of incorporating social and environmental research in addressing One Health challenges. This message was echoed by Salome Bukachi, associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, who said that ‘culture and cultural practices are key components in transmission of diseases as seen with COVID-19.’ Bukachi said that effective interventions must also look at how gender roles influence the spread of diseases.  

OHRECA will work with other One Health initiatives in Africa to bring together public health practitioners, policymakers, veterinary and environmental specialists to tackle mutual problems and respond to the increasing threat of emerging zoonoses. Now more than ever, there is a need for closer cooperation between different sectors and disciplines working together to tackle the most significant challenges of our time. 

The new centre is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). 

Read more about the One Health Centre in Africa.

Read a tripartite guide to addressing zoonotic diseases in countries by FAO, World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and World Health Organization (WHO).