While there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus reported in the African region yet, the continent is on high alert.
In a press statement issued on Wednesday February 5, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it had identified 13 top priority countries in the region, which, due to their direct links or high volume of travel to China, need to be particularly vigilant for the novel coronavirus.
The countries are Algeria, Angola Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
WHO said it was playing an active role in supporting countries to coordinate preparation efforts and surge staff have arrived in the 13 countries.
WHO is dispatching protective equipment for health workers, as well as thermometers and other essential supplies for screening and handling suspect cases at airports and other points of entry.
While the top priority countries are WHO’s first areas of focus, the agency announced that it would support all countries in the region in preparing for novel coronavirus.
Novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.
WHO is engaging with partners to support preparedness in key areas, including community awareness raising and increasing treatment capacity should the need arise. The WHO Africa Regional Director has sent out a guidance note to all countries on how to prepare for a possible novel coronavirus outbreak.
The WHO observed that the African continent has close ties with China, which lies at the epicentre of the outbreak.
As of February 4, 2020, there were 20 471 confirmed cases in China, with 425 deaths. Outside of China, there were 159 confirmed cases in 23 countries with one death.
As this is a new virus, up until early this week there were only two laboratories – one in Senegal and the other in South Africa – which had the reagents needed to test samples and they have been working as referral laboratories for countries around the region. Four more countries (Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) have now reported they can conduct tests as well. WHO is sending kits to 29 laboratories in the region which will ensure they have diagnostic capacity for novel coronavirus and can support testing samples from the neighbouring countries as well.
“A new virus is always a challenge and most laboratories in Africa lack the key material they need to perform tests on a novel pathogen,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “WHO is working with countries to rapidly scale-up diagnostic capacity for novel coronavirus-. It is crucial that countries in the region can detect and treat severe cases early, preventing a widespread outbreak, which could overwhelm fragile health systems.
During a media briefing on Tuesday, the WHO Africa Region’s senior experts explained why the novel coronavirus was a public health emergency of international concern.
Dr Ambrose Talisuna, the Team Lead, Emergency Preparedness, said: “The Emergency Committee of International Health Regulations declared this outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The implication of this is that really we have a coordinated response and also global solidarity. It is an outbreak which is affecting all of us and there should be global solidarity.. “
The WHO said it is vital that countries put in
place effective screening mechanisms at airports and other major points of
entry to ensure that the first cases are detected quickly, as well as provided
key information on how to monitor for any signs of novel coronavirus.
Dr Michel Yao, the Programme Manager, Emergency Operations, elaborated further on why Africa needed to be prepared.
“The key point to limit transmission from affected countries and the second point is to ensure that we have the capacity to isolate and also to provide appropriate treatment to people that may be infected and the third one is to ensure that the population have the appropriate information at least to avoid the disease and limit transmission,” he said.
Dr. Yao added: “Of course all this should be done with health workers and health services, with the appropriate protective equipment and also appropriate procedures to avoid further contamination in case we have a positive case.”
“What we are emphasizing to all countries is that at least they have early detection because we know how fragile is the health system in the African continent and these systems are already overwhelmed by many ongoing disease outbreaks, so for us it is critical to detect earlier so that we can prevent the spread within communities which can trigger quite a number of cases and easily overwhelm the treatment capacity.
Compiled by Carol Natukunda