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WHO to support Africa

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“WHO finds there are critical gaps in readiness for countries across the continent”

As the threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19) looms over the African continent, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has promised to support African Union (AU) member states on a common preparedness and response strategy.

The organisation joined health ministers in an emergency meeting on the coronavirus outbreak which was convened by the AU Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Saturday, WHO said in a statement at the weekend.

WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, joined AU commissioner for social affairs Amira Elfadil in welcoming the ministers. WHO had conducted a survey with countries to assess their overall readiness for COVID-19 and found the regional readiness level was an estimated 66 percent.

“WHO finds there are critical gaps in readiness for countries across the continent,” Moeti said in the statement.

“We need urgently to prioritise strengthening the capacities for countries to investigate alerts, treat patients in isolation facilities, and improve infection, prevention, and control in health facilities and in communities,” Moeti said.

African health ministers “discussed a joint communique on how to prepare for and potentially respond to COVID-19 and expect to conclude their discussions in a few days”, the statement said.

WHO played an active role in supporting countries to coordinate preparation efforts and so far had deployed more than 40 experts to ten countries to support coordination, treatment, infection prevention and control, community engagement, surveillance, and laboratory disease control.

WHO had assisted countries in building their diagnostic capacity for COVID-19, and currently 26 laboratories were able to test for the new pathogen, up from just two early this month.

“The threats posed by COVID-19 has cast a spotlight on the shortcomings in health systems in the African region. Countries must invest in emergency preparedness. This investment is worthwhile when you consider the cost of responding to outbreaks, which for the 2014 Ebola outbreak was estimated at close to $3 billion,” Moeti said.

Preparedness efforts which countries already had in place were paying off. For instance, investments in Ebola preparedness for the nine neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had yielded some dividends in relation to COVID-19. Most of these countries now had partner coordination structures in place, points-of-entry screening had been strengthened (particularly at major airports), and isolation units had been upgraded to manage suspected cases, the statement said.

Over the years, WHO had developed a national influenza network of laboratories and health facilities. The laboratories that were members of the network had been able to scale up their diagnostic capacity quickly, and health facilities in the network were monitoring for severe acute respiratory infections and influenza-like illnesses, using these conditions as a proxy for COVID-19 as they present with similar symptoms.

As of February 20, countries reported that 210 people had been investigated for coronavirus in the WHO African region, with 204 cases having been ruled out and six cases still pending, the WHO statement said.