As the threat of coronavirus disease looms over the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) has promised to support African Union Member States on a common preparedness and response strategy. WHO joined Health Ministers in an Emergency Meeting on the Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, which was convened on 22 February by the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa joined H.E. Amira Elfadil, Commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union Commission in welcoming the ministers. WHO has conducted a survey with countries to assess their overall readiness for COVID-19 and found the regional readiness level was an estimated 66%.
“WHO finds there are critical gaps in readiness for countries across the continent,” said Dr Moeti. “We need urgently to prioritize 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.”
The African Ministers of Health 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.
WHO plays an active role in supporting countries to coordinate preparation efforts and so far has deployed more than 40 experts to ten countries to support coordination, treatment, infection, prevention and control, community engagement, surveillance and laboratory disease control. WHO has assisted countries in building their diagnostic capacity for COVID-19, and currently 26 laboratories are 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,” said Dr Moeti. “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 $US 3 billion. “
Preparedness efforts which countries already have in place are paying off. For instance, investments in Ebola preparedness for the nine neighbouring countries to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have yielded some dividends in relation to COVID-19. Most of these countries now have partner coordination structures in place, points-of-entry screening has been strengthened (particularly at major airports) and isolation units have been upgraded to manage suspected cases.
Over the years, WHO has developed a national influenza network of laboratories and health facilities. The laboratories, which are members of the network have been able to scale up their diagnostic capacity quickly and health facilities in the network are 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. So far this monitoring has not found any clustering or spike of influenza-like cases.
As of 20 February 2020, countries reported that since 22 January, countries report that 210 people have been investigated for COVID-10 in the WHO African region. 204 cases have been ruled out and six cases are still pending.