Brazzaville – For the first time since the start of the pandemic, Africa is emerging from the holiday season without a significant spike in COVID-19 cases.
A total of 20,552 new cases were recorded in the first three weeks of January 2023, which represents a drop of 97% compared to the same period last year. However, an increase in cases has been reported in South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia in the past two weeks. The drop in the number of newly reported cases may be partly due to low COVID-19 testing rates, but it is critical to note that hospitalizations for severe forms of the disease as well as deaths have dropped significantly. As of 22 January 2023, 88 deaths associated with COVID-19 have been reported in the Region, compared to 9096 for the same period in 2022.
“For the first time since COVID-19 turned our lives upside down, the month of January does not mean an increase in the number of cases. Africa is entering the fourth year of the pandemic with hopes of emerging from emergency response mode,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa. “However, with the variants still circulating, it is important that countries remain alert and put in place measures to effectively detect and combat any further rise in infections. »
In 2022, Africa did not experience any major pandemic peaks, outbreaks lasted an average of three weeks before fading. In contrast, in 2021, the continent experienced two pandemic waves caused by more transmissible and deadly variants.
With the gradual slowdown in the number of new cases over the past year, the low transmission of the virus is expected to continue in the coming months, with possible occasional spikes. However, it remains essential that countries maintain their capacity to detect and respond effectively to any unusual outbreaks of cases.
Over the past year, as African countries have stepped up efforts to scale up vaccination, only 29% of the continent’s population have completed the primary round of vaccination as of January 22, 2023, compared to 7% in January 2022. However , the vaccination rate for adults aged 18 and over has increased from 13% in January last year to 47% currently.
However, only four countries in the African Region vaccinated more than 70% of their population, 27 vaccinated between 10 and 39%, while 11 covered between 40 and 70% of their population. Vaccination of high-risk populations has seen some progress with 41% of healthcare workers fully vaccinated in 28 countries and 38% of older people in 23 countries.
To further expand vaccination coverage, in addition to vaccination campaigns, it is important to integrate COVID-19 vaccination into routine health care services that take into account the needs of the most vulnerable. So far, 12 African countries have started integrating COVID-19 vaccination into routine health services.
“As the trajectory of the pandemic evolves, our approach must also evolve. We are helping countries put in place effective ways to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are available, accessible and delivered over the long term,” said Dr Moeti. “We know from experience that huge immunization shortfalls can be the perfect opportunity for the resurgence of vaccine-preventable infections. Even though COVID-19 cases are down, the pandemic may take an unexpected turn. But we can count on vaccines to avoid a disastrous outcome. »
Vaccination against COVID-19 remains essential to protect against severe disease and death, as the virus continues to circulate and mutate.
In Africa, Botswana and South Africa are the only countries to have detected the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant, one of the sublines with public health implications. Genomic sequencing has slowed as COVID-19 testing rates have fallen. In the past week, only three countries have reached the WHO benchmark of five tests per 10,000 people per week, down from 25 at the same time in 2022.
So far this year, 1896 sequences have been submitted. In the same period last year, 7625 sequences were made. Sequencing is essential to track variants and help prepare for a rapid and effective response.
Dr. Moeti spoke today at a press conference. She was accompanied by Ms. Wilhelmina Jallah, Minister of Health of Liberia, and Professor Tulio de Oliveira, Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Also present to answer questions were experts from the WHO Regional Office for Africa: Dr Thierno Baldé, COVID-19 Response Operations Manager, Dr Phionah Atuhebwe, Vaccine Introduction Manager , and Dr Patrick Otim, Head of Health Emergencies at the Serious Events Management Unit.
Source: World Health Organization