By Sharon Atieno

Though there are no confirmed cases of the novel Coronavirus in the African region, the continent’s close ties with China make the region a high risk. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) is strengthening its support to countries to ensure adequate preparation should a case be detected.

According to Dr. Michel Yao, WHO’s head of emergency operations in Africa, the points of focus, is to limit transmission from affected countries, ensure capacity to isolate and provide appropriate treatment to people that may be infected as well as ensuring that the population have the appropriate information at least to avoid the disease and limit transmission.

“What we are emphasizing to all countries is that at least they have early detection because we know how fragile is the health system in the African continent and these systems are already overwhelmed by many ongoing disease outbreaks, so for us it is critical to detect earlier so that we can prevent the spread within communities which can trigger quite a number of cases and easily overwhelm the treatment capacity, “he said.

Though laboratories for conducting rapid detection had been a challenge with only two laboratories- in Senegal and South Africa- which had the reagents needed to test samples acting 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. An additional 24 countries will receive the reagents needed to conduct the tests and will have the test running.

Dr. Yao adds that the progress the region has made in preparing for an Influenza pandemic, will be used should a coronavirus outbreak occur in the region, this is because the coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which cause illnesses which are similar to influenza.

WHO has classified the African countries into three categories, with the first category being classified as high risk due to their direct links or high volume of travel to China. This group includes 13 countries (Algeria, Angola Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia).

Within these countries, WHO is actively supporting countries to coordinate preparation efforts and surge staff have already arrived in seven of them. By the end of the week, teams are expected to be in all the places.

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 are among the equipment the international health body is dispatching.

WHO is engaging with partners to support preparedness in key areas, including community awareness raising and increasing treatment capacity should the need arise.

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.

 Outside of China there were 227 confirmed cases in 25 countries with one death.