A bulk of Covid-19 cases in Africa go undetected despite rise in test numbers

CONGO – In a continent where most deaths are not formally registered and many countries are struggling to vaccinate their people, a great majority of coronavirus cases, an estimated six out of seven, are going undetected, according to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the Africa director at the World Health Organization.

Speaking at a news briefing, Dr. Moeti said the W.H.O. estimated that about 59 million people in Africa had been infected with the coronavirus from the beginning of the pandemic through Oct. 10. Only somewhat more than 8 million cases have been officially recorded.

“Now is the time to go on the offensive against Covid-19, and work with local communities to break transmission chains and stop wider outbreaks from happening,” Dr. Moeti said.

Africa remains the continent with the lowest vaccination rates. In nearly half of the African countries that have received Covid-19 vaccines, only 2 percent of the population or less has been fully vaccinated, according to the W.H.O.

In a meeting at the White House, President Biden told President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya that the United States would donate more than 17 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to the African Union.

Those doses and earlier shipments to the African Union represent more than half of the Johnson & Johnson doses that the U.S. has bought so far for domestic use, the White House said in a statement.

With limited testing available in many countries, Dr. Moeti said, communities in Africa often were “flying blind,” with asymptomatic people passing on the virus without being aware that they have it.

New testing aproach

To reverse that trend and curb transmission, the WHO Regional Office for Africa announced a new initiative to enhance community screening for COVID-19 in eight countries. The programme aims to reach more than 7 million people with rapid diagnostic tests in the next year.

To date, COVID-19 detection in Africa has focused on people reporting to health facilities with symptoms, in addition to testing arriving and departing international travellers, leading to large-scale under-reporting given the high percentage of asymptomatic cases on the continent.

Since the start of the pandemic and as of 10 October, more than 70 million COVID-19 tests have been reported by African countries, which is a fraction of the continent’s 1.3 billion people.

With limited testing, we’re still flying blind in far too many communities in Africa. Most tests are carried out on people with symptoms, but much of the transmission is driven by asymptomatic people. Test numbers have been rising in Africa, but this community-based initiative is a radically new approach which should help significantly raise detection rates. More testing means rapid isolation, less transmission and more lives saved through targeted action,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti.

The countries participating in the programme are Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Zambia.

To kick off implementation, WHO has disbursed US$ 1.8 million to the eight countries.

Over 8 million C0vid-19 cases reported so far

There have now been over 8.4 million COVID-19 cases recorded in Africa, including 214,000 deaths. Despite a decline in case numbers in recent weeks, vaccination rates remain low, with only 30% of the continent’s 54 nations having fully vaccinated 10% of their population against the disease, compared with almost 90% of high-income countries. Meanwhile, just under half of the African countries that have received COVID-19 vaccines have fully vaccinated just 2% or less of their populations.

In the absence of enough vaccines, a more proactive community testing effort is especially important for reducing transmission in African countries where a relatively youthful population is contributing to a high rate of asymptomatic infections.

Estimates show that between 65% and 85% of COVID-19 infections in Africa generate few or no symptoms. As a result, most Africans infected with the disease do not seek out treatment in local health facilities where most testing now occurs. Yet, asymptomatic individuals are playing a key role in facilitating transmission to vulnerable individuals who can suffer severe disease or death.

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