Abu Bakarr Rogers, from Sierra Leone, witnessed the devastating consequences of the 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but he also saw the power and success of widespread vaccination to help end a deadly epidemic.
This experience and others motivated him to pursue a career in medicine in the United States, while focusing on the needs of his home country. Today, he’s a second-year medical student at Stanford, pursuing his passion for public health through teaching, researching Ebola and Global surgery, and as director of operations at Free Cardinal clinics.
In one piece in perspective recently published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Rogers and his co-authors argue that the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative – the primary source of vaccines for many countries in Africa – has “critical limitations, including funding epidemic risks and needs of its participating countries. “
COVAX’s plan to vaccinate only up to 20% of the populations of participating African countries could be disastrous for Africa, Rogers said. Ultimately, he wrote, “Successful vaccination campaigns, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, have shown that vaccinating all of Africa is possible and feasible, and that infrastructure and human resources can support mass immunization. “
I contacted Rogers via email to learn more about his research, motivation, and connection to Sierra Leone.
What motivated you to write this perspective on COVID-19 vaccines for Africa?
It’s something everyone should care about and stand up for, not just because it’s the human thing to do, but because no community is safe until everything is safe. I’d rather be on the ground to help directly with the pandemic response, but since it’s not doable, this perspective piece is my way of doing my part.
We wrote this article to highlight how serious and urgent the situation is. We discuss the drawbacks of the COVAX plan and address key concerns regarding vaccine deployment in Africa and the concrete steps COVAX can take to ensure equitable vaccine distribution in Africa.
My co-authors have extensive experience in public health work – in COVID-19 and Ebola responses – to support our argument that immunizing all of Africa is feasible and in the best interests of the rest of the world. I am extremely grateful to my co-authors for their mentorship and guidance throughout this process and to Amy markowitz for its editorial support.
I think we need to approach the situations in Africa with the same concern and the same urgency as we do in Western countries. Without a swift response, African countries will become the new face of the pandemic, where the virus will continue to mutate into more dangerous variants and spread to the rest of the world.
In addition, I am Sierra Leonean and African, so I see the interest in defending my country and my continent first.
The world has recently seen the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak in India. What makes the situation in Africa unique?
Priority for the dissemination of the vaccine should be given to India and other countries approaching a similar fate. What is happening in India and what we have experienced in the United States should serve as a warning as to why it is so important to tackle the situation in Africa before it is too late.
African countries are expected to receive the same level of commitment and support for COVID-19 vaccine distribution as high-income countries, but this has not been the case. Less than 4% of confirmed vaccine purchases reported by COVAX went to countries in Africa, with countries like Nigeria reporting vaccination rates of less than 1% of its population.
In addition, the socio-economic infrastructure of many African communities makes it difficult to apply Western public health recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Often people live in large community houses where quarantine or self-isolation is not possible.
Some people work in congested areas and survive from day to day, making lockdown difficult. COVID-19 tests are not accessible and there are many clinical deserts. Many of these communities are already overwhelmed by other communicable and non-communicable diseases. Because of these problems, providing 100% immunization coverage to these communities is the only way to avoid an increase in cases.
Our goal is not to ask COVAX to prioritize African nations to the detriment of others. Instead, we want to highlight the fact that COVAX can – and should – do better. If we are to fight the pandemic, we need a plan where no nation or community is left behind.
Can you describe some experiences that inspired you to pursue a career in medicine and public health?
When I was in Sierra Leone, small moments and experiences became anchored in my memory, but also big ones like the Ebola epidemic. When I moved to the United States, I had the opportunity to look at the system from a new perspective and realized that some of the things that were happening in healthcare facilities were not normal.
As I gained more experience, I began to understand more about where I could fit into the equation and how I could help through medicine. It was not a simple process. It took great mentors and active reflection on my experiences and interests. The defining moment for me was when I started working in a free clinic and in a real lab. After that, things started to fall into place.
What lessons can be learned from your experiences in medicine and your work on this project?
Medicine is political and extremely hierarchical. Thus, it is essential that healthcare professionals understand the policies and continue to advocate for change both in the healthcare system and in other systems that impact the health of patients and their families. communities.
COVAX has played such an important global role in the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, but the shortcomings of this initiative reflect larger flaws in global health. There are systemic forces at play that we cannot combat by sending COVID-19 vaccines to communities, although this step is essential. We also need to better equip communities with the skills and resources they need to create a sustainable system.
How do you see your future impact in medicine and public health?
There are so many things that I find fascinating that it’s going to be difficult to choose a path, and I don’t think I will. For now, I know that clinical and community work, advocacy, research and teaching will play an active role in whatever path I choose. I also know that I want to pay forward to Sierra Leone and Africa in any way I can.
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