By Asmau Ahmad
The World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Africa in Brazzaville, Congo, has called for caution and consideration as COVID-19 cases drop significantly in Africa.
It said while there is an urgent need to reopen economies and resume social lives, it was important to consider the risks involved.
According to WHO, contact tracing is a key strategy for curbing the spread of the virus and reducing mortality.
It noted that with the evolution of the pandemic, countries have moved towards prioritised contact tracing, where only contacts at high risk of infection or falling severely ill are now followed.
“Based on analysis of open-source data, WHO finds that by March 15, 2022, 13 countries were conducting comprehensive surveillance, while 19 countries were carrying out prioritized contact tracing. 22 African countries were no longer carrying out any kind of contact tracing,” it said.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said 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,” Dr. Moeti said.
WHO said aside from contact tracing, testing is a critical surveillance strategy.
The world health body’s benchmark for countries with a good testing rate is 10 tests per 10,000 population per week.
“In the first quarter of 2022, only 27 per cent of countries were achieving this weekly target, indicating a concerning decrease in testing rates compared with 2021, when 40 per cent of countries reached the benchmark. Aside from polymerase chain reaction 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 percent of the population are fully vaccinated compared with the global average of 57 percent.
“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.
“Twenty-two countries ban mass gatherings down from 41, a year ago, according to data received on the WHO portal tracking COVID-19 health measures implemented by countries.
“However, in most countries, the requirement to wear a mask remains in place. 43 countries maintain mask-wearing, although four have eased the measure, with masks mandatory only on public transport or in closed spaces,” WHO noted.
Dr Moeti added that the pandemic is not over yet and that the preventive measures should be eased cautiously with health authorities weighing the risks against the anticipated benefits.
“WHO has provided clear guidance to countries on how to implement and adjust public health and social measures in different situations and contexts as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.
“These guidelines recommend that countries take a comprehensive approach that weighs the risks and anticipated benefits when determining whether to relax measures. Countries should take into consideration the capacity of health systems, the immunity of the population to COVID-19, and the countries’ socio-economic priorities. If measures are relaxed, there should be a system in place for them to be quickly reinstated in the event of a deterioration of the situation.
“Additionally, as countries lift or adjust the public health measures, it is critical to ensure that systems are in place to closely monitor the infection trends, allow timely detection and treatment as well as swiftly respond to the emergence of new variants of concern. Countries should also scale up vaccinations to increase the number of people protected from the adverse effects of the virus,” it said.