Low COVID-19 Vaccine Coverage Undermines Eastern Mediterranean’s Plans To Welcome Pilgrims and Football Fans
COVID-19 vaccine is being administered to a woman in Iran.

Some 42% of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Eastern Mediterranean is fully vaccinated, but only five of the 22 member states have met the global goal of vaccinating 70% of their populations despite enough vaccine stocks being available, according to a media briefing on Wednesday.

WHO Region Director for Eastern Mediterranean, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, ascribed the low vaccine rate in some countries to the reach of the vaccine campaigns, and vaccine hesitancy among populations.

The region includes a number of countries wracked by war and conflict, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, the Occupied Palestine Territory and Yemen.

The vaccination rates vary hugely from 99% in the United Arab Emirates all the way down to 2.1% in Yemen.

Meeting the global COVID-19 vaccination targets remains a priority in the Eastern Mediterranean region even as they registered some of the lowest reported cases and deaths in the region since the pandemic began, according to Al-Mandhari.

The region had 21.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 324,000 deaths up to 16 April, but the transmission rate remains a matter of concern, the WHO said. 

The region also saw a 21% decrease in new cases and a 24% decrease in deaths, but Al-Mandhari warned member states not to let their guard down, especially with pilgrims and tourists expected to arrive in the region in the coming months. 

“While the trends may seem encouraging, it is important to note that we have seen an increase in the number of new cases in two countries and an increase in deaths in six countries,” he said.

“Transmission remains high, vaccination coverage remains low in several countries, and the relaxation of public health and social measures is still being widely observed, allowing continued transmission and the risk of new variants emerging.” 

Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Extensive use of multiple booster doses in a small number of countries will not end the pandemic. The global and regional priority is to achieve full protection of the highest priority groups in all countries with full vaccination and a booster dose first, and then advance to lower priority groups based on vaccine supply and health system capacity,” said Al-Mandhari, adding that 9% of the region had been boosted.

Preparing for hajj pilgrims, FIFA World cup 2022

The Region is set to welcome and host a number of mass gathering events, including umra and hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia in July, and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November. These events are set to welcome over a million pilgrims and tourists from around the world and concerns remain on the COVID-19 situation and spread with such events.

When asked about COVID-19 precautionary measures in the region in the run-up to the World Cup, the WHO tols Health Policy Watch that they were working closely with the Government of Qatar and FIFA on this very issue. 

Dr Richard Brennan, Regional Emergency Director, said that the WHO was working with the regional authorities to do its best to adhere to the protocols but there was no guarantee that there would be no cases of COVID-19 infections.

“We’ve learned enough from this virus to indicate that we cannot guarantee that[spreading] but I can assure you that as many of the most appropriate measures that can be taken are being taken out in the lead up to the World Cup, and we hope to keep it as virus-free as possible,” said Brennan.

Image Credits: Johnson & Johnson, Wikimedia Commons, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region .

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