Africa faces COVID-19 upsurge driven by variant and eased health measures: WHO
Africa, notably Southern Africa, is facing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases, mainly fuelled by the Omicron variant amid relaxed public health and social measures, warned Thursday the World Health Organization, urging countries to brace for fresh pandemic wave.
Africa has recorded 52,878 COVID-19 cases in the week ending on May 8, a 38 percent rise from the week before, as Southern Africa accounted for 87 percent of the continent's recorded cases in the same period, said Abdou Salam Gueye, director of emergency preparedness and response at WHO regional office for Africa.
"The current surge is being fuelled by the Omicron variant amid relaxed public health and social measures," explained Gueye at an online press conference held in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo.
The increase in Southern Africa is largely observed in South Africa where weekly recorded cases have quadrupled in the past three weeks. In addition to South Africa, Eswatini and Namibia have also recorded an increase in cases, with both reporting 50 percent more new cases in the past two weeks compared with the previous two weeks, said Gueye.
Since April 2022, South Africa has recorded 1,369 cases of the Omicron sub-variant BA.2, 703 cases of sub-variant BA.4, and 222 cases of sub-variant BA.5, according to WHO's latest assessments.
However, BA.4 and BA.5 remain the most concerning because the two sub-variants contain the largest number of mutations, and it is still unclear how they affect immunity, noted a statement by WHO at the end of the press conference.
Africa's past four pandemic waves, which have occurred around the middle and the end of the year, are mostly driven by new COVID-19 variants, winter seasons, and high population movement during these holiday periods, explained Gueye. In 2021, the Delta-fuelled mid-year surge began around May, followed by another uptick in late November with the emergence of Omicron.
"This uptick in cases is an early warning sign which we are closely monitoring. Now is the time for countries to step up preparedness and ensure that they can mount an effective response in the event of a fresh pandemic wave," said Gueye.
However, with the decline in cases earlier this year, countries have rolled back public health measures, including surveillance and testing.
Between March and May 2022, only 30 percent of countries reporting testing data met the WHO benchmark of carrying out 10 tests per 10,000 people per week, which is down from 40 percent in the months between the waves driven by Delta and Omicron in 2021.
"With the experience gained over the past two years, we must do all it takes to curb the adverse impacts of a new pandemic wave by stepping up vaccination and the measures to detect and prevent the spread of the virus as well as treat patients," Gueye said. "To beat this pandemic, we must stay vigilant. The harsh reality is that complacency comes at a high price."
To this day, Africa has reported 11.7 million confirmed cases and around 253,000 deaths, according to the statement released Thursday.