With 34 out of the 54 African countries having reported cases, the coronavirus (COVID-19) is rapidly spreading across the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week. “We've seen quite a rapid increase geographically of the spread of the virus across countries,” WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti, said today in a conference call with journalists.
At the same time, affected countries are ramping up their efforts to quickly detect and contain cases. “At the beginning of February, for example, we had only two laboratories in South Africa and Senegal that were capable of diagnosing this virus. Now we have 40 countries that have the capacity,” said Dr. Moeti.
The first case on the continent was detected as early as February in Egypt. But as of 19 March, a little over 650 cases had been reported, with Egypt having the highest number at 210, South Africa (150) and Algeria (82). Ten other countries, each have a single case so far.
Meanwhile, the WHO is urging African countries to implement “focused screening and case finding” strategies to quickly identify people who may be infected with COVID-19. This means testing anyone with suggestive symptoms and those who might have been in contact with any infected person.
On why Africa has still a relatively small number of detected cases, WHO said it was not necessarily linked to under-reporting of such cases but rather to precautionary measures, including travel flow controls, quarantines, and active monitoring of travelers put in place by African countries earlier on. In addition, researchers are looking into the COVID-19 pattern of spread to inform better management and response.
Still, WHO says precautionary measures, including handwashing and social distancing, observed globally, should also be strictly observed across Africa, even though water and sanitation challenges remain in rural areas, and social distance may be challenging because of cultural norms.
“We need to think about what it means to do social distancing and family. We might have to think differently,” said Dr. Moeti.
In response to whether countries, especially those with fewer than 10 cases, should close public spaces, including schools, Dr. Moeti said “it is a wise thing to do to put these measures in place earlier rather than later.”