Nigeria’s EPCON AI project has been cited as a world leading programme for pandemic preparedness by a new report.
Published today in the UK parliament ahead of World TB Day this Friday, the report highlights several areas where the World Health Organization-recommended programmes for strengthening pandemic preparedness overlap with existing tuberculosis (TB) programmes, including prevention, detection, response, and innovation.
TB kills more people every year than any other infectious disease. Like COVID-19, it is a respiratory pathogen, spread through the air when people cough or sneeze. Last year, 1.6 million people worldwide died from TB, an increase on previous years that has been partially attributed to TB health services and resources being redeployed to fight COVID-19 instead.
The EPCON AI project uses artificial intelligence to identify potential populations where infectious diseases might be spreading but, critically, where patients aren’t accessing treatment. During the pandemic, EPCON rapidly repurposed their project to help identify potential COVID-19 hotspots. The project was cited by the authors of how innovative TB programmes can help prepare for, and fight, pandemics.
“I’m proud to see EPCON AI’s work identified as an example of global excellence on pandemic preparedness.” Said Honorable Abubakar Dahiru Sarki, Chairman, AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Control Committee of the National Assembly of Nigeria and member of The Global TB Caucus. “But we can and should do a lot more on TB. Nigeria has the highest TB burden in Africa and the WHO estimates that 125,000 people die from the disease here every year.”
Deborah Iberi Ikeh, Executive Director of the Debriche Health Development Centre, a Nigerian NGO, agreed, highlighting the upcoming United Nations High-Level Meetings on pandemics and TB as key opportunities to drive action on both issues.
“What we need are clear examples of what countries can do to beat TB today and prepare for tomorrow’s pandemics. Heads of State and Government must commit to champion the High-Level Meeting process, confirm their attendance at the meeting itself, and share examples of excellence like this one and others from Nigeria to inspire their fellow world leaders.”
The report highlights a number of areas where Ministries of Health can build on their national TB programmes to strengthen preparation for future pandemics. These include training more doctors and nurses with specialisation in respiratory care, integrating TB into National Health Security Action Plans, and support community-led interventions.
For Hon. Sarki however, there is one particular priority that stands out.
“The biggest challenge for beating TB is that not enough people affected by TB are diagnosed and complete treatment. During the pandemic we invested in a lot of new diagnostic machines and many of those can diagnose TB as well as COVID-19. We have to make sure that we provide additional diagnostic capacity in order to strengthen our TB detection systems and get more people on treatment. COVID-19 taught us hard lessons but also showed us that with the right decisions, and political will, we can halt the spread of a pandemic and prepare better for possible future pandemics; the same urgency seen in tackling COVID must be extended to TB and other infectious diseases. ”
Ikeh agreed and said that she believed TB could hold the key to defeating future pandemics: “Nearly every expert I’ve spoken to has argued that the most likely future pandemic will be like TB, airborne and respiratory. The best way to prepare for the next respiratory pandemic is to beat the one we have.”
While referencing the SDG 3 goal to end TB by 2030, Ikeh highlighted that technology held the key: “The integration and deployment of technology and innovation into TB control efforts in Nigeria could be a game changer.” She said: “In this era where everyone is trying to do more with less resources, the value add of deploying technology in every single aspect of TB control efforts in order to maximise impact can not be overemphasised.”
Hon. Sarki also made a strong call for strengthened collaboration and concrete partnerships: “We need to make sure that all our projects are sustainable and accountable to the people. That means we need more and better collaborations between parliamentarians, technical partners, implementing partners, civil society representatives and the National TB Program. If we work together, we can end TB.”