COVID-19 deaths in Africa have risen sharply in recent weeks, amid the fastest surge in cases the continent has seen so far in the pandemic, the regional office for the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.
COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 40 per cent last week, reaching 6,273, or nearly 1,900 from 4,384 deaths in the previous week. Hospital admissions also increased rapidly as countries faced shortages in oxygen and intensive care beds.
Africa is now less than 1 per cent shy of the weekly peak reached in January when 6294 deaths were recorded. Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia accounted for 83 per cent 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 per cent against the global average of 2.2 per cent.COVID-19 cases have risen for eight straight weeks, topping 6 million on 13 July 2021.
Over the past month, Africa recorded an additional 1 million cases, the organization reports that 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. WHO attributes this surge which is also the fastest the continent has seen to 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,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa.
“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 per cent 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 per cent 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.”
When it comes to drugs, 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.
Giving an update on the vaccination status, Moeti said the continent has vaccinated 52 million people since the start of the vaccine rollout in March this year, accounting for just 1.6 per cent of the 3.5 billion people vaccinated worldwide. Only 18 million people in Africa are fully vaccinated, representing 1.5 per cent of the continent’s population compared with over 50 per cent in some high-income countries.
“The double barrier of vaccine scarcity and treatment challenges is seriously undermining effective response to the surging pandemic,” said Dr Moeti. Additional vaccines supplies expected in the coming weeks and months will help shore up the vaccination rates.
Around 190 million extra COVID-19 vaccine doses will be needed to fully vaccinate 10 per cent of Africa’s population by September 2021, with around 750 million more doses needed to fully vaccinate 30 per cent by the end of 2021.