Between 83,000 and 190,000 people could die of COVID-19 in Africa, with 29 million to 44 million infected, in the coronavirus pandemic’s first year if containment measures do not work, the African regional office of the World Health Organization said Thursday.
To arrive at the newest predictions, health experts looked at variables unique to each country to gauge transmission risk and disease severity, WHO Africa said in a statement. They found a slower transmission rate, lower age of people severely afflicted, and lower mortality rates compared with other countries, the WHO said.
“This is largely driven by social and environmental factors slowing the transmission, and a younger population that has benefited from the control of communicable diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis to reduce possible vulnerabilities,” the WHO said.
Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco do not fall under the WHO’s purview in the region and were not included in the assessment, Reuters noted. In addition, many of those countries do have detailed plans in place, starting with containment, the news wire said.
A separate United Nations report in March showed a higher potential toll, and predicted severe economic contraction in the region as well, The Associated Press reported.
As of Thursday, 52 countries in Africa had seen cases, according to WHO Africa’s tally, with 51,239 cases in Africa as a whole and 34,338 cases in the WHO Africa Region, the global health body said. Of those, 17,471 had recovered and 1,926 had died. South Africa remained the most affected, with 7,808 cases, WHO said.
In the countries WHO studied for its predictions, the lower transmission rate may make for a longer-term outbreak over years, WHO said. In addition, it found that smaller African countries near Algeria, South Africa and Cameroon were at particularly high risk if containment fails.
“While COVID-19 likely won’t spread as exponentially in Africa as it has elsewhere in the world, it likely will smolder in transmission hotspots,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said in the agency’s statement. “COVID-19 could become a fixture in our lives for the next several years unless a proactive approach is taken by many governments in the region. We need to test, trace, isolate and treat.”
A survey WHO took in March of 47 countries found that on average there were nine intensive care unit beds per 1 million people, which would be quickly overwhelmed given the potential 3.6 million to 5.5 million hospitalizations that current models predict. Anywhere from 82,000 to 167,000 of those cases could require oxygen, the WHO said. Between 52,000 and 107,000 would be “critical cases requiring breathing support,” all of which would “severely strain the health capacities of countries.”
In its own, separate survey, Reuters found that Africa has less than one intensive care bed and one ventilator per 100,000 people.
Compounding those numbers, the WHO said, is that access to such facilities tends to be very low. Thus containment is key for these countries.
“The importance of promoting effective containment measures is ever more crucial, as sustained and widespread transmission of the virus could severely overwhelm our health systems,” Moeti said. “Curbing a large-scale outbreak is far costlier than the ongoing preventive measures governments are undertaking to contain the spread of the virus.”