Pandemic accelerating in Africa, test kits needed, WHO says

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating in Africa, spreading to rural areas after international travellers brought it to capital cities, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

10 countries driving Africa's epidemic, accounting for 75% of the 207,600 cases

A City of Tshwane health official conducts a screening exercise on a taxi operator before testing for the novel coronavirus at the Bloed Street Mall in Pretoria Central Business District. South Africa has been the hardest-hit country in Africa. (Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating in Africa, spreading to rural areas after international travellers brought it to capital cities, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

But the WHO said there was no indication that large numbers of severe cases and deaths were being missed, or that the virus has caused significant infections in refugee camps across the continent.

Ten countries are driving Africa's epidemic, accounting for 75 per cent of the some 207,600 cases on the continent, said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's Africa regional director. About 5,000 deaths have been reported.

South Africa, which last month began a phased easing of its coronavirus-related lockdown, is the hardest-hit, accounting for a quarter of all cases, she said.

"Even though these cases in Africa account for less than three per cent of the global total, it's clear that the pandemic is accelerating," Moeti told a news briefing for Geneva-based UN correspondents.

"We believe that large numbers of severe cases and deaths are not being missed in Africa."

Africa's population is relatively young and many countries had already established "point of entry" screening measures against Ebola fever — two factors which may have so far limited the impact of COVID-19, she said.

But lockdowns and market closures to contain coronavirus contagion have hit poor families hard, Moeti said.

Truck drivers enter a queue on June 1 to be tested for the coronavirus on the Kenya side of the Namanga border crossing with Tanzania. Africa's long-haul truckers carry food, fuel and other essential supplies along dangerous roads, but now they say they are increasingly accused of carrying the coronavirus as well. The drivers say they are stigmatized and even threatened in some countries. (Brian Inganga/The Associated Press)

In South Africa, high numbers of daily cases and deaths are being reported in two provinces, the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, she said, noting: "Specifically in the Western Cape where we are seeing a majority of cases and deaths, the trend seems to be similar to what was happening in Europe and in the U.S."

Shortages of test kits remain a challenge on the continent, Moeti said, and until there is an effective vaccine, Africa is likely to see a steady increase with hot spots requiring strong public health and physical distancing measures.

It is unclear why the disease spread more slowly in Africa at first, she said, but several factors could be at play — lower numbers of international travellers arriving to spread the virus, quick reactions by African leaders, demographics and the weather.

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