By Joseph Opoku Gakpo
African health experts have issued an urgent call to boost COVID-19 vaccinations to contain mortalities as a new variant drives infections and deaths across the continent.
Meanwhile, Tanzania shocked other African nations by announcing it will not engage in a COVID vaccine program at all.
Although Africa initially seemed to have been spared the ravages of the global pandemic, it had recorded 105,001 COVID deaths as of March 5, with more than half the fatalities occurring in the last three months.
This ominous trend has sparked calls for immediate efforts to stem the tide as treatment facilities fill up, leaving health care professionals overwhelmed.
“The health systems are getting stretched. The main health facilities are full. Then the cases spill to the periphery facilities. So, the things that shouldn’t lead to deaths are resulting in deaths because the periphery facilities are not as equipped,” public health advocate Dr. Kwame Asiedu Sarpong told a COVID-19 media briefing organized by the Kenya-based Africa Science Media Center.
The World Health Organization’s Africa office issued a statement expressing concern that COVID-19 deaths shot up by 40 percent in January as a second wave of the pandemic swept across the continent.
“Preliminary reports which WHO has received from 21 countries show that 66 percent reported inadequate critical care capacity, 24 percent reported burnout among health workers and 15 countries reported that oxygen production, crucial for severely ill COVID-19 patients, remains insufficient,” the statement explained.
The deaths are a result of the increased spread of a new coronavirus strain that is believed to be more infections, Dr. Michael Owusu, a virologist and lecturer at the Medical Diagnostic Department of the Kwame Nkrumah University in Ghana, told the Alliance for Science. He called for stepping up interventions to slow transmission and reduce hospitalization and deaths.
But he cautioned against the re-introduction of lockdowns as a way to contain the virus, noting vaccination is the better way out.
“If you weigh the impact of the lockdowns, it has devastated many families. Some have businesses that haven’t survived… and many people in the informal sector are struggling. So, lockdown is not something you want to recommend for different places in Africa. Vaccine is the only way to go…,” he said.
Health experts criticize Tanzania’s controversial posture
But the government of Tanzania recently shocked the continent by announcing it will not accept and roll out a vaccination program because the country supposedly has COVID-19 under control.
“Our approach – because we are mainly focusing on prevention, and also adopting herbals — we think we are successful in controlling the disease,” Dr. Hassan Abbas, a government spokesman, told the BBC.
Owusu disagrees. “There is no basis for this, and it is quiet unfortunate. Tanzania’s Food and Drugs Authority is highly recognized in the world internationally. I believe a country like that shouldn’t be spearing this agenda,” he told the Alliance for Science.
Abass said Tanzania will wait to see the rest what happens with the worldwide vaccine program before it will even begin a conversation on using vaccines locally. “So much as the world is going to verify or to test on the veracity of these vaccines, we think we would wait to see the veracity and authenticity of those vaccines first,” he noted.
But Asiedu says there is no reason for skepticism of the vaccines. He said the fast pace at which the vaccines were developed, with most developed in less than a year, doesn’t mean they are unsafe.
“Corners have not been cut. Rather, they did things in series, rather than in parallel… They didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. They used pre-existing platforms,” he explained.
“If you look at the data, almost 285 million people across the world have received their first dose. If you look at Africa, almost 4.5 million doses have been given. So, the question is, with this large number of people vaccinated, if this vaccine is meant to kill Africans, why are more people being vaccinated in Europe and elsewhere? That should tell you the vaccine is not meant to kill Africans,” he noted.
Owusu noted that some African hospitals are running out of oxygen and facing insufficient funding to meet the demand for services, underscoring the urgent need to quickly reduce the rate of transmission and infections and slow the death rate.
“The use of vaccines seems to be the best way to help all of us… You have to advocate for many people to take it to reach the point where you can say people can go back to their normal duties… We are fortunate the vaccines have come in which for me will help a lot of countries in Africa to begin to have some breathing space to get things done,” the virologist said.
Owusu said vaccines have always been part of Africa’s efforts to contain other diseases and are nothing new. “In Africa, we have defeated polio, measles, mumps, rubella. They are almost off because of vaccines. So, this is not the first time we have to take this.”
“And our continent has become better because of vaccines. Deaths of under-five [year-old children] have reduced because of vaccines. Vaccines have gone a long way to make our lives better for so many years. Without vaccines, I don’t know what we will do as a continent,” he added.
Asiedu agrees that the answer to stopping the increased deaths is to vaccinate the at-risk population. “Until then, observe the safety protocols,” he added. Asiedu noted that increased vaccination globally is the best way to stop spread of the pandemic.
“Unless the whole world achieves herd immunity, you are not solving the problem,” he explained. “Vaccine nationalism only favors the virus. It doesn’t favor the world.”