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WHO worries over African countries’ relax on COVID-19 measures

By Princess-Ekwi Ajide, Abuja

World Health Organisation, WHO, has asked African countries to ensure that systems are in place to closely monitor COVID-19 infection trends, allow timely detection and treatment so as to swiftly respond to the emergence of new variants of concern as they lift or adjust the public health measures.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti who stated this during a virtual press briefing urged countries to also scale up vaccinations in order to increase the number of people protected from the adverse effects of the virus.

She cautioned that with new COVID-19 cases significantly dropping, many countries are increasingly curtailing COVID-19 surveillance and quarantine measures without considering the risks involved.

According to her, while the need to reopen economies and resume social life is important, countries should be cautious as contact tracing is a key strategy for curbing the spread of the virus and reducing mortality.

She noted that in August 2020, 23 out of 54 countries on the continent were conducting comprehensive contact tracing, which entails listing and following all the contacts of a confirmed case but with the evolution of the pandemic, countries have moved towards prioritized contact tracing, where only contacts at high risk of infection or falling severely ill are followed.

WHO analysis of open-source data indicates as at 15 March 2022 that twenty-two African countries were no longer carrying out any kind of contact tracing, while 19 countries were carrying out prioritized contact tracing. and only 13 countries were conducting comprehensive surveillance.

Dr. Moeti, expressed worry that nearly half of all countries in Africa have stopped tracing the contacts of cases which according to her along with robust testing, is the backbone of any pandemic response noting that without the critical information, it will be difficult to track the spread of the virus and identify new COVID-19 hotspots that may be caused by known or emerging variants.

She said in the first quarter of 2022, only 27% of countries were achieving the WHO weekly target benchmark for countries with a good testing rate at 10 tests per 10 000 population per week, indicating a concerning decrease in testing rates compared with 2021, when 40% of countries reached the benchmark.

Aside from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and antigen rapid diagnostic tests, WHO is also recommending self-testing using antigen-detection rapid tests to expand access to diagnostics and has published guidelines.

While COVID-19 cases have declined across the continent since the peak of the Omicron-driven fourth wave in early January 2022, vaccination coverage remains far behind the rest of the world. About 201 million people or 15.6% of the population are fully vaccinated compared with the global average of 57%.

However, with cases low and pressure mounting to open up the economy, countries are not only cutting back on surveillance but a raft of other measures. A WHO survey conducted in March 2022 found that seven out of 21 countries reporting no longer required quarantine for people exposed to the virus. One country did not require isolation of confirmed cases, while four required isolation for only symptomatic cases.

According to data received on the WHO portal tracking COVID-19 health measures implemented by countries, twenty-two countries ban mass gatherings down from 41 a year ago even though the requirement to wear a mask remains in place in most countries as forty-three countries maintain mask-wearing, only four countries have eased the measure, making masks mandatory only on public transport or in closed spaces.

The African Regional Director, noted that for more than two years, the pandemic has maintained a painful stranglehold on lives, and the imperative for countries to revive economies and livelihoods is understandable but the pandemic is not over yet and the preventive measures should be eased with cauti


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