WHO advises African countries on safety measures in reopening economy

By Blessing David

Following a decline in COVID-19 cases to which many countries are increasingly curtailing COVID-19 surveillance and quarantine measures,with the urge to reopen economies and resume social life , there is need for caution and consideration of the risks involved, says the World Health Organization WHO.

WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti,who gave the advise at a virtual meeting today said with the evolution of the pandemic, countries have moved towards prioritized contact tracing, where only contacts at high risk of infection or falling severely ill are followed.

Dr. Moeti cautioned that the pandemic isn’t over yet and the preventive measures should be eased cautiously with health authorities weighing the risks against the anticipated benefits, as such,lifting the public health measures does not mean lifting the foot off the pedal of pandemic vigilance, adding that for more than two years, the pandemic has maintained a painful stranglehold on our lives, and the imperative for countries to revive economies and livelihoods is understandable.

The Director emphasized that 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.

She said based on analysis of open-source data, WHO finds out that as at 5 March 2022, 13 countries were conducting comprehensive surveillance, while 19 countries were carrying out prioritized contact tracing and twenty-two African countries were no longer carrying out any kind of contact tracing.

“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.”

WHO maintains that the benchmark for countries with a good testing rate is 10 tests per 10 000 population per week, just as in the first quarter of 2022, only 27% of countries were achieving this weekly target, indicating a concerning decrease in testing rates compared with 2021, when 40% of countries reached the benchmark.

She added that aside from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) 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.

WHO insists that even though 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 thus about 201 million people or 15.6% of the population are fully vaccinated compared with the global average of 57%.

WHO also noted that 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. Forty-three countries maintain mask-wearing, although four have eased the measure, with masks mandatory only on public transport or in closed spaces.

She maintained that 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, of which these guidelines recommend that countries take a comprehensive approach which weigh the risks and anticipated benefits when determining whether to relax measures.

The Director therefore stressed on the need for countries to 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.

She advised that 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.

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