WHO Urges Caution on Africa’s Rollback of COVID-19 Measures
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa

Even while other parts of the world see upticks, or in the case of Asia, huge spikes in COVID-19 cases, an increasing number of African countries are scaling back COVID-19 surveillance and quarantine measures – a trend that the World Health Organization finds worrisome in the continent that still has the lowest rates of vaccination in the world.

Addressing a WHO AFRO press briefing, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, urged countries in the region to proceed cautiously and consider the risks that new variants like the Omicron BA.2 that are wreaking havoc in Asia could spread to Africa, or other new variants could emerge.  

In August 2020, 23 out of 54 African countries were conducting comprehensive COVID surveillance, including contact tracing, she noted. But as of 15 March 2022, only 13 countries were conducting comprehensive surveillance, while 22 African countries are no longer carrying out any kind of contact tracing whatsoever.

“It is a matter of concern that nearly half of all countries in Africa have stopped tracing the contacts of cases. This, along with robust testing, is the backbone of any pandemic response. Without this critical information, it is difficult to track the spread of the virus and identify new COVID-19 hotspots that may be caused by known or emerging variants,” Moeti said.

Nigeria is one of the countries where such public health measures are being rolled back, conceded Dr Ifedayo Adetifa, the new Director General of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), at the same briefing. But he defended the policies as evidence-backed decisions that attempt to find the balance between ensuring that lives are protected and livelihoods are also able to continue.

“We looked at the test positivity rates trend since December last year, and we also looked at the genomic surveillance data. We have seen a continued and stable downward trend of test positivity in the country,” Adetifa said.

Need to speed up vaccination

Dr Ifedayo Adetifa, Director General of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)

In addition to ensuring that systems are in place to monitor infection trends and allow a swift response to new variants of concern, WHO also urged African countries to scale up vaccinations to increase so that more people are protected from future virus waves. 

Only about 15% of Africans, on average, have been fully vaccinated. According to COVID-19 vaccination data curated by Africa CDC, Africa has received over 750 million vaccine doses, to date, out of which about 490 million have been administered. 

In Nigeria where only 4.4% of the population are fully vaccinated, Adetifa noted that while vaccination is ongoing, it is proceeding slowly. 

“We obviously need to achieve high vaccination coverage, particularly for the high risk groups and we already see that even with the few cases that we have, a few serious cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that we have, most of these have and still continue to occur among the elderly, among those with comorbidities especially cardiovascular or endocrine diseases,” he added.

70% coverage goal is still important

africa cdc
Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC

Despite the existence of several other public health challenges, some of which are more lethal and are killing more people than COVID-19, Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) told Health Policy Watch that it is still important for African countries to prioritize the 70% vaccination coverage goal.

That would still be six months later than the stated WHO aim of reaching 70% by July 2022 – a goal which presently seems far out of reach in light of current vaccination rates.

Asked about concerns being expressed privately by some African health officials that the huge investment required for COVID vaccination could divert resources from other, even bigger disease challenges that the continent faces, he said that countries shouldn’t have to face that choice.  

Instead, he said they should endeavor to respond to all public health challenges at the same time.

“I think we should continue to strive to get to 70%. It is not either or; it’s not that we should deplete resources to only get the vaccination to 70% and then neglect HIV, TB and malaria. We should be tackling all of these diseases. Those are the challenges of our time. Each generation has their own challenges to deal with and we cannot walk away from the challenges of our time,” he concluded.

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