June 11, 2020 / 9:27 AM / 21 days ago

Pandemic accelerating in Africa, test kits needed, WHO says

GENEVA (Reuters) - 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.

FILE PHOTO: Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, attends a briefing at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

But the WHO said there was no indication that large numbers of severe cases and deaths were being missed, nor has the virus caused significant infections in refugee camps across the continent.

Ten countries are driving Africa’s epidemic, accounting for 75% 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 the lockdown, is the hardest-hit, accounting for a quarter of all cases, she said.

“Even though these cases in Africa account for less than 3 percent of the global total, it’s clear that the pandemic is accelerating,” Moeti told a news briefing for Geneva-based U.N. 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.

In South Africa, high numbers of daily cases and deaths are being reported in two provinces, the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, she said, adding: “Specifically in the Western Cape where we are seeing a majority of cases and deaths, the trend seem 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 hotspots requiring strong public health and social 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.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan

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