By Gift Briton

As most African countries lift and adjust some key COVID-19 control measures, thanks to the significant drop of new cases, the World Health Organization(WHO) warns that this needs to be executed with caution.

According to WHO, even though the need to reopen the economy and resume social life is important, contact tracing and testing of new cases are still key in curbing the spread of the virus and reducing mortality.

A survey by the organization shows that as of 15 March 2020, 13 countries were conducting comprehensive surveillance, while 19 countries were carrying out prioritized contact tracing and 22 African countries were no longer carrying out any kind of contact tracing.

WHO’s recommended testing rate is 10 tests per a 10,000 population per week of which the organization notes that as of the first quarter of 2022, only 27% of the African countries are achieving this weekly target pointing out a concerning decrease in the testing rate as compared to 2021 when 40% of countries reached the target.

Other than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and antigen rapid diagnostic tests, WHO also recommend self-testing using antigen-detection rapid tests to expand access to diagnostics.

Without contact tracing and testing, WHO notes that it would be difficult to track the spread of the virus, and identify new COVID-19 hotspots that may be caused by known or emerging variants.

“It is a matter of concern that nearly half of all countries in Africa have stopped tracing the contacts of cases,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

“This, along with robust testing, is the backbone of any pandemic response. Without this critical information, it is difficult to track the spread of the virus and identify new COVID-19 hotspots that may be caused by known or emerging variants.”

Meanwhile, more than 11 million COVID-19 cases have been recorded in the continent with over 250 000 lives lost.

WHO notes that majority of countries have lifted the ban on mass gathering mandatory wearing of face masks and a third of the countries have lifted mandatory quarantine for people exposed to COVID-19.

Above all, WHO points out that vaccination remains key in order to achieve herd immunity. Africa remains far behind the rest of the world in vaccination rate with only 201 million people (15.6%) fully vaccinated compared with the global average of 57%.

Countries are asked to ramp up their vaccination rate to increase the number of people who are protected from adverse effects of the virus.

Furthermore, as countries relax the control measures they should also ensure that support systems are put into place to allow their reinstatement should situations deteriorate.

“For more than two years, the pandemic has maintained a painful stranglehold on our lives, and the imperative for countries to revive economies and livelihoods is understandable. However, the pandemic isn’t over yet and the preventive measures should be eased cautiously with health authorities weighing the risks against the anticipated benefits,” said Dr. Moeti, during the weekly press briefing.

“Lifting the public health measures does not mean lifting the foot off the pedal of pandemic vigilance.”

WHO recommends that countries should take a holistic approach which weigh the risks and anticipated benefits when determining whether to relax measures taking into account the capacity of health systems, the immunity of the population to COVID-19, and the countries’ socio-economic priorities.