COVID-19: 10,000 health workers infected in Africa, says WHO

South Africa, one of the five countries most affected by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, accounted for 35 per cent of the infections

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Monday 27 July 2020

More than 10,000 healthcare workers in at least 40 countries in Africa have contracted the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), said the World Health Organization (WHO) in a July 23, 2020 statement.

It pointed out the increasing risk of infection frontline healthcare workers face across the continent, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to tighten its grip on Africa, with over 770,000 cases and 16,000 deaths as of July 23.

Healthcare systems across the continent — especially in sub-Saharan Africa — are challenged by a severe shortage of healthcare workers.

Some countries are approaching a critical number of infections that can place stress on their healthcare systems, the global health body warned, in an address at a virtual press conference.

Eighty-four per cent of the continent’s healthcare facilities surveyed by the WHO were found to have poor infrastructure to prevent 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 Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa.

“This has very real consequences for individuals who work in them and there is no more sobering an example of this than the rising number of healthcare worker infections,” Moeti added.

No adequate infrastructure to prevent infections

The WHO survey, which included clinics and hospitals across the continent, pointed out the poor state of healthcare workers. Just 16 per cent of the nearly 30,000 facilities surveyed had assessment scores above 75 per cent, according to the survey.

Several healthcare centres lacked the infrastructure necessary to implement key infection prevention measures, including to prevent overcrowding.

Only 7.8 per cent — or 2,213 healthcare centres — had isolation capacities and just a third had the capacity to meet the needs of patients requiring urgent care.

Infected healthcare workers in South Africa

South Africa — one of the five countries most affected by the pandemic — accounted for 35 per cent of the infections among healthcare workers in the continent recorded so far.

More than 3,500 workers were reported to be infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, leaving at least 34 dead.

The workers, however, have continued to work at increasing odds against their lives, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Infected workers in sub-Saharan Africa

Healthcare workers accounted for at least five per cent of all COVID-19 infections in sub-Saharan Africa, according to preliminary data from the WHO. The workers accounted for more than 10 per cent of all infections in four African countries within this region.

Over 1.4 million or 10 per cent of all cases worldwide are among healthcare workers though there is a wide range between individual countries.

Why healthcare workers are at risk

Other delegates, who addressed the media along with the WHO July 23, included Léonie Claudine Lougue, minister of health, Burkina Faso, Alpha T Wurie, minister of health and population, Sierra Leone and Jemima A Dennis-Antwi, independent consultant for the Centre for Health Development and Research.

They reiterated and highlighted the key reasons behind the risk to healthcare workers.

Inadequate access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and weak infection prevention and control measures raised the risk of infection among healthcare workers, said Moeti, on behalf of the WHO African region.

Earlier this month, international non-profit Amnesty International called for the safety and security of healthcare workers worldwide.

While the demand for protective equipment has increased, global restrictions on travel have led to and triggered shortages in supply.

Several COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic as well. There is, thus, the risk of healthcare workers being exposed to such patients who visit hospitals and other healthcare centres.

Risks may also arise when healthcare personnel are repurposed for responding against COVID-19 without adequate briefings or because of heavy workloads that result in fatigue, burnout and, possibly, not fully applying standard operating procedures stated by WHO.

In several African countries, infection prevention and control measures aimed at preventing infections in healthcare facilities are still not fully implemented.

WHO intervention

Moeti — in her opening address to the press — said the WHO will continue to help African countries with the support of international partners to replenish supplies of essential supplies of “safety goods” for the healthcare workers.

More than two million PPEs — including masks, gloves and goggles — were shipped to African countries, with 41 million PPE items in the pipeline from China starting July 25, according to Moeti.

WHO said it was also working closely with health ministries to reduce healthcare worker infections since the onset of COVID-19.

Over 50,000 healthcare workers in Africa were trained on infection prevention and control, with 200,000 more such workers to be trained by the WHO with more guidelines on best practices and up-to-date treatment regimes.

Countries like Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire have, thus, managed to reduce healthcare worker infections considerably, claimed the WHO statement.

In Sierra Leone, healthcare workers accounted for 16 per cent of the country’s COVID-19 infections two months ago. The numbers have now, however, dropped to nine per cent.

The WHO recommended increasing measures to prevent infection and control them. This also requires a true estimate of the health crisis affecting them: Nurses and midwives accounted for a larger share of the infected workers.

Managing the crisis calls for accurate and realistic estimates by systematic collection and reporting of information on such frontline healthcare workers across the world, including Africa, as demanded by the International Council of Nurses recently.

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