The COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve in the Africa region since it was first detected in Algeria on 25 February. As of 24 July, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports 638,903 cumulative cases in 47 African countries,10,000 of which are healthcare workers.
In a virtual press conference on 23 July, WHO regional director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti spoke about health worker infections in Africa. Moeti was joined by Dr Léonie Claudine Lougue (minister of health of Burkina Faso), Dr Alpha T Wurie (minister of health and population of Sierra Leone), and Dr Jemima A Dennis-Antwi (international maternal health and midwifery specialist based in Ghana).
So far, about 10% of all cases globally are among healthcare workers. However, this varies widely between individual countries. In Africa, information on health worker infections is still limited.
Moeti says the organisation has seen a range of healthcare workers contracting COVID-19, including laboratory technicians and people who provide ancillary support in healthcare settings. While Moeti was unable to give precise data, she confirmed nurses have the highest infection rate.
Moeti says the WHO is working on improving the surveillance of this problem and collection of data in Africa. This data will not only be used to determine how many healthcare workers are infected, but also to determine exactly which areas of expertise are at greater risk.
In the most recent situation update for Africa, the organisation reports that since its last report on 15 July, Africa has seen a 23% increase in cases, with over 71% of new cases being recorded in South Africa.
As of 23 July, South Africa had 408,052 cases, followed by Nigeria (38,948 cases), and Ghana (29,672 cases). South Africa is now the fifth worst-hit country in the world.
Some countries are approaching a critical number of infections that can place stress on health systems.
“The growth we are seeing in COVID-19 cases in Africa is placing an ever-greater strain on health services across the continent,” said Moeti.
“This has very real consequences for the individuals who work in them, and there is no more sobering example of this than the rising number of health worker infections.”
A lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and weak infection prevention and control measures have been blamed for the infection increase.
Dennis-Antwi says information on the number of healthcare workers infected is “highly guarded by most countries”. However, she adds that African countries including Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have reported cases of healthcare worker infections.
Ghana reports 2,065 cases of infected healthcare workers, 91% of whom fully recovered. Dennis-Antwi says among the factors contributing to the infection rate of healthcare professionals is the lack of a consistent supply of resources and PPE.
Closing the briefing, Moeti reiterated WHO’s call for “global solidarity and equitable access to essential supplies in fighting COVID-19, including PPE, test kits, and other critical items that are urgent, and continuous support from the international community of African countries responding to this crisis”.
She also noted that WHO and the Africa CDC had launched an expert advisory committee tasked with providing independent scientific advice and support to countries on research and development of traditional medicines and remedies for COVID-19.