WHO ramps up COVID-19 support to hotspot countries in Africa

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GENEVA — The first members of a surge team of health experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) have arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, to bolster the country’s response to COVID-19. As the continent nears one million cases, WHO is expanding support to countries experiencing a significant uptick in cases.

South Africa is among the five countries in the world most affected by COVID-19. After their arrival, the WHO surge team went into quarantine in line with the national regulations. A second group of experts will deploy next week. Altogether more than 40 public health experts are expected to provide surge support, working with national and provincial counterparts on key areas of the response.

"As the impact of the virus intensifies in a number of hotspots in Africa, so too are WHO’s efforts," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. "At the request of the South African government, our experts will be embedded with the national response teams, working closely with local public health officials to address some of the urgent challenges the country is currently facing."

Across the continent, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken varied trends: 10 countries accounted for 89 percent of new cases over the past two weeks. New cases have increased by more than 20 percent in 16 countries in the African region in the past two weeks compared with the previous fortnight.

WHO is increasing support to 11 countries, which have requested assistance as they experience a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The organization is mobilizing more technical experts on the ground, scaling up trainings to build up local capacity, particularly at the provincial and district level.

With community transmission occurring in more than half of countries in Africa, WHO is beefing up community engagement and health education and providing direct material support to strengthen testing capacity.

"Lack of testing is leading to some under-reporting of COVID-19 cases and preventing us from understanding the full picture of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa," said Dr Moeti.

"We need to turn this around so countries can calibrate their response, ensuring it is most effective, and as cases move into the hinterlands, testing must be decentralized from the capital cities."

To help meet demand for essential medical equipment across Africa, WHO and other United Nations agencies have formed a global procurement consortium, which leverages their networks, expertise and product knowledge to support countries that have limited access to markets.

The WHO-led consortium has secured critical volumes of testing kits and other key diagnostic supplies from major manufacturers.

So far, the consortium has shipped 1.8 million testing kits to 47 countries in Africa over the past month. Another 1.1 million testing kits are expected to be dispatched in the coming weeks.

Testing for COVID-19 in Africa remains low by global benchmarks, but capacity has expanded significantly since the outbreak began. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 6.4 million polymerase chain reaction tests have now been performed.

Eleven countries are now performing more than 100 tests per 10,000 population, compared with just six a month ago. July saw a 40 percent increase in the total number of tests performed compared with the previous month. — WAM