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WHO warns "urgent action" needed to stem "surging cases" of COVID-19 in Africa

Africa facing COVID-19 vaccine shortage as cases rise
Africa facing COVID-19 vaccine shortage as cases rise 02:57

Johannesburg, South Africa — As the rate of new COVID-19 infections climbed 20% week-on-week in almost two dozen African nations, senior health officials have warned that the continent, grappling with its third wave of coronavirus, could be overwhelmed. 

"The sobering trajectory of surging cases should rouse everyone into urgent action," the World Health Organization's Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said on Thursday. "We've seen in India and elsewhere just how quickly COVID-19 can rebound and overwhelm health systems. So public health measures must be scaled up fast to find, test, isolate and care for patients and to quickly trace their contacts."

Moeti prodded African nations to step-up their vaccination campaigns, too, noting that 23 countries had used less than half of the doses they received. She said vaccinations across the continent were proceeding slowly, with less than 1% of the continent fully vaccinated thus far.  

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At a separate news conference, Dr. John Nkengasong, head of the continent's own CDC, told reporters that while he welcomed the G-7 leaders' pledge of 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine, "they are not here now, and we are hoping they will be here soon."

He echoed Moeti, stressing that some African nations were running out of vaccine supplies fast, while others were struggling to use the stocks they have.  

"Unfortunately, 23 countries have used less than half of the doses they have received, including four of the countries experiencing a resurgence," Moeti told reporters.    

Health officials across the continent have reported widespread logistical challenges in getting people vaccinated, including public hesitancy to get the shots, funding, and the sheer distance and remoteness isolating some populations.   

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Africa has collectively reported only about 5 million COVID-19 cases, representing just under 3% of the global total. But as Moeti warned: "New cases are up nearly 30% in the past week, with five countries, South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia, Uganda, and Namibia, accounting for 76% of the new cases."  

Health officials have voiced relief that Tanzania has now asked to join the global COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative. The country stopped reporting cases in May 2020 under former President John Magufuli, who trivialized the pandemic and was skepitcal of the vaccines. 

The country has yet to even start a vaccination campaign under new President Samia Suluhu Hassan, but with the request for doses from COVAX, there's at least some hope on the horizon for Tanzania.

Supply problems are, however, far from the only hurdle for Africa's vaccination programs, and as the WHO's global Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed on Friday, for the immediate future, "we expect the COVID-19 situation in Africa to only get worse." 

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