Africa records a 43 per cent week-on-week rise in COVID-19 deaths
Strong likelihood for emergence and global spread of more dangerous COVID-19 variants, warns WHO
Geneva/Brazzaville: The eighth meeting of the World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee has recognised the strong likelihood for the emergence and global spread of new and possibly more dangerous COVID-19 variants of concern that may be even more challenging to control.
The meeting convened by the WHO Director-General under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) regarding the coronavirus disease in Geneva on July 14, 2021, noted that the pandemic continues to evolve with four variants of concern dominating global epidemiology despite national, regional, and global efforts, and is nowhere near finished.
The Committee unanimously agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic still constitutes an extraordinary event that continues to adversely affect the health of populations around the world, poses a risk of international spread and interference with international traffic, and requires a coordinated international response.
As such, the Committee concurred that the COVID-19 pandemic remains a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).
It stated that the pandemic remains a challenge globally with countries navigating different health, economic and social demands, and noted that regional and economic differences are affecting access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
“Countries with advanced access to vaccines and well-resourced health systems are under pressure to fully reopen their societies and relax the public health and social measures (PHSM). Countries with limited access to vaccines are experiencing new waves of infections, seeing erosion of public trust and growing resistance to PHSM, growing economic hardship, and, in some instances, increasing social unrest. As a result, governments are making increasingly divergent policy decisions that address narrow national needs which inhibit a harmonized approach to the global response,” it noted and stated that it was highly concerned about the inadequate funding of WHO’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan and called for more flexible and predictable funding to support WHO’s leadership role in the global pandemic response.
The Committee expressed appreciation for States Parties engaging in research to increase understanding of COVID-19 vaccines and requested that clinical trial volunteers not be disadvantaged in travel arrangements due to their participation in research studies. At the same time, it emphasised the risk of emergence of new zoonotic diseases while still responding to the current pandemic. The Committee noted the importance of States Parties’ continued vigilance for detection and mitigation of new zoonotic diseases.
In the meantime, Africa recorded a 43% week-on-week rise in COVID-19 deaths, as hospital admissions increase rapidly and countries face shortages in oxygen and intensive care beds.
Fatalities increased to 6273 in the week ending on July 11, 2021 from 4384 deaths in the previous week. Africa is now less than 1% shy of the weekly peak reached in January when 6294 deaths were recorded. Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia accounted for 83% of the new deaths recorded in the past week. The continent’s case fatality rate, which is the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases, currently stands at 2.6% against the global average of 2.2%.
COVID-19 cases have risen for eight straight weeks, topping 6 million on July 13, 2021. Over the past month, Africa recorded an additional 1 million cases. This is the shortest time it’s taken so far to add 1 million cases. Comparatively, it took around three months to move from 4 million to 5 million cases. This COVID-19 surge is the fastest the continent has seen.
The surge is driven by public fatigue with key health measures and an increased spread of variants. To date, the Delta variant, which is currently the most transmissible of all variants, has been detected in 21 African countries, while the Alpha variant is in 35 countries and Beta in 30.
“Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, said today in Brazzaville.
Under-resourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients. Hospital admissions in around 10 countries have increased rapidly and at least six countries are facing shortages of intensive care unit beds. Demand for medical oxygen has spiked and is now estimated to be 50% higher than at the same time in 2020, yet supply has not kept up. A rapid WHO assessment of six countries facing a resurgence found that just 27% of the medical oxygen needed is produced.
“The number one priority for African countries is boosting oxygen production to give critically ill patients a fighting chance,” Dr Moeti said. “Effective treatment is the last line of defence against COVID-19 and it must not crumble.”
Insufficient quantity, disrepair or poor maintenance of production plants as well as challenges in distribution, scarcity of cylinders, personnel or technical skills are among the barriers to adequate medical oxygen supply in Africa.
In a WHO survey to which 30 African countries responded, only 18 countries had included corticosteroids in their national treatment guidelines, as recommended by WHO. Nine countries are including medications that are not recommended in treating COVID-19, such as hydroxychloroquine and lopinavir.
WHO is working with countries to improve COVID-19 treatment and critical care capacities by providing guidance on clinical management and support to update protocols and train health workers. Along with partners, the organization is also delivering essential medical supplies, such as oxygen cylinders and has supported the manufacture and repair of oxygen production plants.
The rise in cases comes amid inadequate vaccine supplies. The continent has vaccinated 52 million people since the start of the vaccine rollout in March this year, accounting for just 1.6% of the 3.5 billion people vaccinated worldwide. Only 18 million people in Africa are fully vaccinated, representing 1.5% of the continent’s population compared with over 50% in some high-income countries.
– global bihari bureau