Pandemic risks high in Africa despite slow spread

COVID-19 cases in Africa passed 100,000 in late May—a relatively low figure in a region with just 1.5 percent of the confirmed cases worldwide. A slower transmission rate and younger population left some observers optimistic, even as WHO warned of overwhelmed hospitals, UNICEF of missed vaccinations, and the World Food Programme (WFP) of desperate shortages.

A WHO modeling study in BMJ Global Health crystallized the continent’s ambiguous plight. Forecasting 22 percent of the population in the WHO African region infected after one year, the study anticipated fewer severe cases and lower mortality than in other regions but also cited “significant” indirect effects. Directly attributable deaths could reach almost 190,000, the study said.

On Africa Day—May 25—WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the region’s “agile response” to the pandemic, suggesting experience in tackling other infectious diseases had helped African leaders limit the spread. He also noted that testing capacity was still ramping up.

Meanwhile, UNICEF again warned of the lingering impact of missed vaccinations, drawing particular attention to the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where immunization coverage fell substantially in January and February, even before the brunt of COVID-19’s impact.

Finally, WFP anticipated a spike in malnourishment in the eastern part of the continent. The agency warned that the number of acutely food insecure people in East Africa and the Horn could more than double from May–July, potentially increasing from 20 million to as many as 43 million. In West Africa, WFP said the number of acutely malnourished children during the lean season (June–August) could surge from 8.2 million last year to 12 million this year, partly the result of suspended school meals.

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