African health experts say more vaccines needed to curb continent’s COVID death toll

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 13, 2021

As deaths spike, experts are advocating for increased access to COVID-19 vaccines on the African continent.

“Weekly COVID-19 deaths in Africa reached a record peak in the week that ended on August 1, marking the highest seven-day toll since the onset of the pandemic in the continent,” the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa said in a statement last week.

“The double barrier of vaccine scarcity and treatment challenges is seriously undermining effective response to the surging pandemic,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said.

WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called for halting plans in the United States and other advanced countries to offer fully vaccinated people COVID-19 vaccine boosters against the more transmissible variants so that more doses can be shipped to the developing world.

“I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant,” Tedros said at a media briefing. “But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it.”

Less than 2 percent of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated compared to 53.2 percent in the EU, 50.3 percent in the US and 59.4 percent in the United Kingdom, according to Aug. 10 data from the Bloomberg tracker. High-income countries have administered 62 times more doses per person than low-income countries, WHO says.

Death trends are on the rise in 15 African countries, according to the WHO’s analysis. Twelve nations have meanwhile reported higher case fatality rates than the African average of 2.5 percent in the last month. Africa is currently recording about 6,400 COVID-19 every week, compared to about 5,000 late last year.

Health care system overwhelmed

In a statement last month, WHO expressed concern about rapid increases in COVID-19 hospital admissions on the African continent, with countries facing shortages of oxygen and intensive care beds. “Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” Moeti said in the statement. “Under-resourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients.”

Relaxation of COVID-19 protocols, increased transmission of the highly transmissible Delta, Alpha and Beta variants of the virus, as well as low COVID-19 vaccination rates on the continent, are said to be contributing to the spike.

Given the current pace of vaccination, WHO says nearly 70 percent of Africa’s countries will not be able to achieve the 10 percent vaccination goal set for all nations on the continent by the end of September. While urgent measures are needed to boost the supply of vaccines, efforts must also be made to encourage people to take the jab when adequate quantities become available.

“African countries must address the fear of side-effects which are major drivers of people’s reluctance to get vaccinated,” Moeti said.

Ghanaian Public Health Advocate Dr. Yaw Sarpong Asiedu observed that increased vaccinations could help save more lives. In places like the UK, where vaccinations are high, COVID-19 patients are dying less frequently and leaving the hospital soon after hospitalizations because the vaccines have boosted their immune system, he said.

“The cases in the UK are going up. Like you see in Ghana with Delta, the current case load in the UK is around the case load in February–March. Today, there were 39,000 cases in the UK. The only difference is that in February–March when there were 39,000 cases, you saw 2,000 deaths on the average. Today, with 39,000 cases, you see 17 deaths, 20 deaths. That tells you the power of vaccinations,” he told Joy News in an interview.

Keeping safe without vaccines

Experts are advising residents on the African continent to observe COVID-19 protocols including wearing masks that cover the nose, avoiding overcrowding, and ensuring physical distancing to help keep the population safe. Dr. Yaw Bediako of the West Africa Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens said complacency has set in among some members of the public, which is discouraging them from abiding by COVID-19 protocols. He warned that such attitudes will only worsen the situation. He is also calling for an expansion of testing regimes across the continent to gather quality data on infections to properly guide public health policy.

“Many of them (COVID-19 patients) may not be symptomatic,” Dr. Bediako said. “But when you are not symptomatic, you also think that it is not a problem. And so perhaps certain targeted testing might provide data to communicate to people clearly the need for them to adhere to the Covid-19 protocols. It’s not about scaring people, but it’s about demonstrating to people the severity of the problem… There is the need for us to take this seriously.”

He added: “COVID was never gone. But if you thought COVID was ever gone, it’s back. We need to take it seriously. We need to treat it more seriously than we’ve ever done,” he told Joy News in an interview.

Asiedu said that in the absence of COVID-19 vaccines, people can best protect themselves by complying with pandemic protocols. “When you find yourself in this situation where the data and reality don’t agree, the only option is compliance,” he said. “Because when you comply, even if the infection rate is 100 percent, if everyone is wearing a mask, sooner than later within two weeks, [caseloads] will all drop.”

The virus has an active run rate of within 10 to 14 days, he explained. “And so, if we are compliant enough, we can avert this third wave. All we need is 14 to 21 days of 60 to 70 percent compliance with the protocols and we will break the virus.”

Image: Doctor administers COVID-19 vaccine to a woman in Africa. Photo: Shutterstock/i_am_zews