Lesotho + 5 more

Southern Africa: Lack of comparative data impedes response to crisis, WHO

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JOHANNESBURG, 21 Feb 2003 (IRIN) - There was an urgent need for more epidemiological surveillance throughout Southern Africa to allow for more targeted health interventions, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.
Widespread food shortages - which threaten about 15 million people in Southern Africa - and the impact of HIV/AIDS posed serious public health challenges for affected countries in the region, WHO said.

It was critical that these challenges were crystallised to allow for better policy formulation and more targeted health interventions, WHO noted at a UN Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Support Office (RIACSO) meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday.

The organisation said that "given the effect of HIV/AIDS, WHOs overriding priority was to support national health ministries [to] build a health intelligence system that was better able to acquire, analyse and synthesize health information".

This would assist in deciding how best to improve the response of the health sector "to communities suffering from system-wide disruptions to nutritional, water, energy and medical services".

WHO field personnel form the six affected countries (Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe, recently to review the health situation in their respective countries.

"Common challenges were distilled and options explored for boosting the health sectors response to the complex interplay of rampant HIV/AIDS infection (and other diseases), abnormal and extreme weather conditions, the haemorrhaging of professional health care workers to better off countries, socio-economic decline and short-sighted policies," WHO said.

Insufficient gathering of epidemiological data was identified as the main concern.

"For example, a participant from Mozambique, epidemiologist Dr Pierre Kahozi, [illustrated] how the pattern of cholera outbreaks in Mozambique over the past 20 years showed a trend toward shorter intervals between outbreaks and increasing severity.

"This exponential trend suggested that, while public health interventions have had short term curative effects, the disease is gaining ground over the long term," the agency warned.

To what extent this trend was widespread could not be established, however, for lack of comparative epidemiological surveillance systems in all countries - which was sorely needed.

Comparative epidemiological surveillance systems - which would require competent field personnel to collect data, technically qualified personnel to rigorously analyse the information, and effective leadership to synthesize the information - would allow for better determination of health priorities and policy making.

"Concerted and substantial effort to employ, train and mobilise such personnel was thus urgently required from all public health stakeholders," WHO noted.

[ENDS]

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