Risk of COVID-19 surge threatens Africa’s health facilities

ADDIS ABABA – World Health Organization (WHO) strongly urged African countries today to boost critical care capacity to prevent health facilities from being overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases.

This comes as vaccine shipments to the continent grind to a near halt and the risk of a surge in COVID-19 cases increases.

Weak observance of preventive measures, increased population movement and interaction as well as the arrival of winter in southern Africa have heightened the risk of COVID-19 resurgence in many countries, according to the UN health agency.

Increasing Cases

In the last two weeks, Africa recorded a 20% increase in cases compared with the previous fortnight.

The pandemic is trending upwards in 14 countries and in the past week alone, eight countries witnessed an abrupt rise of over 30% in cases.

“The threat of a third wave in Africa is real and rising. Our priority is clear – it’s crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of COVID-19,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, during a virtual press conference on Thursday.

The UN health organization, however, said COVID-19 vaccine shipments continue to slow down amid the increase in cases.

Getting Second doses

Nearly 20 African countries have used up more than two-thirds of their doses.

The COVAX Facility is in talks with several manufacturers, as well as with countries which have vaccinated their high-risk groups to share doses.

“While many countries outside Africa have now vaccinated their high-priority groups and are able to even consider vaccinating their children, African countries are unable to even follow up with second doses for high-risk groups,” said Dr Moeti.

“I’m urging countries that have reached a significant vaccination coverage to release doses and keep the most vulnerable Africans out of critical care.”

Altogether, 48.6 million doses have been received and 31.4 million doses have been administered in 50 countries in Africa, where around 2% of the population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while globally 24% have been vaccinated.

As the continent struggles with vaccine shortages, the care of critically ill COVID-19 patients is also lagging behind other parts of the world.

While Africa has 2.9% of cases globally, it accounts for 3.7% of deaths, according to the WHO.

‘Not ready Health facilities’

A survey carried out in May found that in many African countries, crucial equipment and the health workforce required to handle severely ill COVID-19 patients fall far short of needs.

Of the 23 countries responding to the survey, most have fewer than one intensive care unit bed per 100 000 population and will require an increase of between 2500% and 3000% to meet needs during a surge.

Among the countries providing information on ventilators, only a third of their intensive care unit beds are equipped with mechanical ventilators.

High-income countries such as Germany, Luxemburg or the United States of America that have been able to cope with COVID-19 surges have over 25 beds per 100 000 population.

“Many African hospitals and clinics are still far from ready to cope with a huge rise in critically-ill patients. We must better equip our hospitals and medical staff to avert the worst effects of a runaway surge,” said Dr Moeti. “Treatment is the last line of defence against this virus and we cannot let it be breached.”

To further reinforce COVID-19 critical care services in the continent, the WHO recommends that every district hospital should have a high-dependency unit, while those at the regional or provincial level have an intensive care unit and higher-level health facilities set up 2—3 intensive care units.

All intensive care units must be adequately equipped, the UN health agency said.


Featured Image: Pictured is Dr. Moeti greeting a UN staff during her field visit in Butembo in April, 2019. [Photo:File/WHO]