While there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus reported in the African region, the World Health Organization (WHO) is strengthening its support to countries in the detection and management of suspect cases and in ensuring a robust response, should a first case be detected.
The continent has close ties with China, which lies at the epicentre of the outbreak and WHO assesses 2019-nCoV a high risk for the African region. Since the 22 January 2020, WHO has received dozens of alerts regarding possible novel coronavirus infections from 20 countries. Once countries investigate these alerts to determine if they meet the definition of a 2019-nCoV suspect case, samples are taken and sent to laboratories.
As this is a new virus, up until early this week there were only two laboratories – one in Senegal and the other in South Africa – which had the reagents needed to test samples and they have been working as referral laboratories for countries around the region. Four more countries (Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) have now reported they can conduct tests as well. WHO is sending kits to 29 laboratories in the region which will ensure they have a diagnostic capacity for novel coronavirus and can support testing samples from the neighbouring countries as well.
“A new virus is always a challenge and most laboratories in Africa lack the key material they need to perform tests on a novel pathogen,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “WHO is working with countries to rapidly scale-up diagnostic capacity for 2019-nCoV. It is crucial that countries in the region can detect and treat severe cases early, preventing a widespread outbreak, which could overwhelm fragile health systems.”
WHO has identified 13 top priority countries in the region (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia), which due to their direct links or high volume of travel to China need to be particularly vigilant for the novel coronavirus. WHO plays an active role in supporting countries to coordinate preparation efforts and surge staff have arrived in seven of the 13 countries and by the end of the week, teams are expected to be in place in all. WHO is dispatching protective equipment for health workers, as well as thermometers and other essential supplies for screening and handling suspect cases at airports and other points of entry. While the top priority countries are WHO’s first areas of focus, the organization will support all countries in the region in preparing for novel coronavirus.
WHO is engaging with partners to support preparedness in key areas, including community awareness-raising and increasing treatment capacity should the need arise.
Many countries are building on the expertise they have gained in preparing for an influenza pandemic as coronaviruses cause illnesses similar to influenza. In addition, since the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo started in 2018, WHO and partners have helped countries at high risk to prepare for possible Ebola cases. These efforts which have led to increased capacity in surveillance and the handling of infectious cases can also support the response to the novel coronavirus.
WHO recommends that to protect against the novel virus, people should practice good hand and respiratory hygiene and safe food preparation practices. These include washing hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing, avoiding close contact with anyone with flu-like symptoms, cooking food and especially meat.
As reported to WHO by 4 February 2020, there were 20 471 confirmed cases in China, with 425 deaths. Outside of China, there were 159 confirmed cases in 23 countries with one death.