WHO urges greater COVID-19 vigilance in Africa ahead of festive season

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Health workers conducting COVID-19 tests

The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging African countries to be on high alert for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases ahead of the festive season.

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The caution by the global agency responsible for international public health comes as nearly 20 countries in the region registered an upsurge in new infections.

After reporting a downward trend then a plateau, Africa has been experiencing a rise in cases since early October. Unlike the first wave of cases which was triggered by hotspots in Southern Africa, the latest increase is driven by the North African region, where temperatures are beginning to fall.

In the 47 countries in the WHO African Region, 19 countries have reported over a 20% increase in new cases in the past 28 days compared with the previous four weeks.  However, 17 countries are also reporting a more than 20% drop in the number of new cases over the past 28 days, compared with the previous four weeks. There have also been increased reports of health worker infections and deaths, particularly among more experienced health workers.

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Large group gatherings and mobility have been identified as risk factors for increasing the spread of COVID-19 and the approaching holiday season can promote these risks, leading to super spreader events.

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“As we near the time of year when people get on the move to spend their holidays together, there is a bigger risk of COVID-19 transmission,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “New clusters of cases can emerge in places that have so far been unaffected as people travel or gather for festivities. But we can lower the risks by wearing masks, limiting the numbers of people who come together, observing physical distancing and practicing good hand hygiene. We can celebrate yet do so safely.”

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WHO is urging Member States to conduct risk assessments at the subnational level and identify areas of high risk.

WHO has identified a worrying trend of disregarding safety measures among populations.  As part of an effort to re-energize key public health measures, WHO has launched the “Mask Up, Not Down” campaign. The campaign aims to reach over 40 million young people in Africa with positive messages on the correct use of masks through social media, and to combat complacency, fatigue and misunderstanding around COVID-19 prevention measures.

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“In the face of COVID-19, complacency can be dangerous,” said Dr Moeti. “At this critical moment as Africa begins to see an uptick in cases, we need to re-energize and recommit to wearing masks. I know many are finding the public health measures cumbersome, but without action from everyone, Africa risks a new surge in COVID-19 cases.”

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