By Sharon Atieno

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the continent, the World Health Organization has warned of the threat posed by the disease to health workers across Africa.

More than 10,000 health workers in 40 countries have been confirmed COVID-19 positive. Though information is still limited, preliminary data shows that health worker infections in Africa make up more than 5% cases in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa alone, and in four of these, health workers make up more than 10% of all infections.

“The growth we are seeing in COVID-19 cases in Africa is placing an ever-greater strain on health services across the continent,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa during a virtual press conference. “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.”

According to WHO, inadequate access to personal protective equipment or weak infection prevention and control measures raise the risk of health worker infection. Surging global demand for protective equipment as well as global restrictions on travel have triggered supply shortages.

“Health workers can also be exposed to patients who do not show signs of the disease and are in the health facilities for a range of other services. Risks may also arise when health personnel are repurposed for COVID-19 response without adequate briefing, or because of heavy workloads which result in fatigue, burnout and possibly not fully applying the standard operating procedures,” a statement from the organization reads.

In an assessment of clinics and hospitals across the continent on infection prevention and control measures carried by the health body, only 16% of the nearly 30 000 facilities surveyed had assessment scores above 75%.

Many health centres were found to lack the infrastructure necessary to implement key infection prevention measures, or to prevent overcrowding. Only 7.8% (2213) had isolation capacities and just a third had the capacity to triage patients.

“One infection among health workers is one too many,” said Dr Moeti. “Doctors, nurses and other health professionals are our mothers, brothers and sisters. They are helping to save lives endangered by COVID-19. We must make sure that they have the equipment, skills and information they need to keep themselves, their patients and colleagues safe.”

The partnership between the WHO and the health ministries has led to reduction of health worker infections as the organization has trained more than 50 000 health workers in Africa in infection prevention and control, with plans to train over 200 000 more.

Noting the commitment of WHO to help countries replenish their essential suppiies, Dr. Moeti said: “Through the Global UN Supply platform, more than 2 million items of PPE (including masks, goggles and gloves) have been shipped to African countries and 41 million PPE items are in the pipeline for shipment starting this weekend.”

As a result of concerted efforts by WHO and partners some African countries have managed to reduce health worker infections considerably. For example, two months ago over 16% of COVID-19 infections in Sierra Leone were among health workers. The figure has now dropped to 9%. Cote d’Ivoire has reduced the proportion of infections among health workers from 6.1% to 1.4%. Scaling up infection prevention and control measures can further reduce infections among health workers.