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Coronavirus: Understanding the Risks and Africa’s Readiness to Combat its Spread
Coronavirus: Understanding the Risks and Africa’s Readiness to Combat its Spread
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By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 08-03-2020

An outbreak of a new Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, has crippled the world’s second-largest economy.

The virus which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan on 12th December 2019 has spread into 94 countries. As of March 8, 2020, there were over 3000  cases of the virus in 93 countries outside of China, according to the World Health Organization. Worldwide number of infections reaches 109,765 on March 8th, 2020 and death toll climbs to 3,802 with China registering over 2,700 casualties. The Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan have also registered deaths from the virus. Although many experts question the veracity of China’s statistics for the Wuhan Coronavirus outbreak, given the country’s history of hiding true data.

coronavirus outside China

The first cases of the virus occurred in a group of people linked to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China. In this market, seafood including fish, reptiles, bats and other live and dead animals are traded.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus – How Deadly is it?

It is not yet known how the present coronavirus was first transmitted to humans, some speculate that it is from bats while some say it was from the pangolin but a consensus has not been reached.
The virus has been declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization and was officially named COVID-19. This is only the fifth time that the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency of international concern. A public health emergency of international concern is declared by the WHO in cases of “an extraordinary event” which constitutes “a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and potentially requires a coordinated international response”.

According to Chinese scientists, people who get the virus are contagious even before they show symptoms and the incubation period – the period from when the infection occurs until symptoms develop – is between 1 and 24 days.

What do we know about Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses make up a large family of viruses that can infect birds and mammals, including humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Coronaviruses circulate in a range of animals and can sometimes make the jump from animals to humans, via a process known as a “spillover”, which can occur due to a mutation in the virus, or increased contact between animals and humans.When these happen, it could lead to severe outbreak just like we are seeing.

Coronavirus Illustration - Human pathogenic viruses
Human pathogenic viruses Illustration

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS which originate from civet cats, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome MERS which originated from infected camels, are from the family of Coronavirus. While some Coronaviruses have caused devastating epidemics, others cause mild to moderate respiratory infections, like the common cold.

Worst Epidemics in History
WHO Worst Epidemics In History

So far the mortality rate for COVID-19 has proven to be far lower than for SARS and MERS. COVID-19 has about 2% compared to around 10% mortality rate of the 8,437 people infected with SARS and 35% mortality rate of the 2494 people infected with MERS. However, the new virus appears to have spread more rapidly than its earlier cousins.

While the incubation period for COVIA-19 can last up to 24 days, the average incubation period of the virus is 3 days. However, it can take as little as one day and as long as 24 days for a patient to develop symptoms.

Coronavirus symptoms

Though the virus is milder when compared to SARS and MERS, the virus could be deadly, especially in patients with weak or compromised immune systems. Symptoms of the virus can include a sore throat, runny nose, fever or pneumonia and can progress to multi-organ failure or even death in some cases. Some victims appear to have relatively mild symptoms, especially children.

Coronavirus - Symptoms infographics
Coronavirus Symptoms

An analysis of patients’ symptoms indicates that fever and coughing are the most common, however only 43.8% of patients exhibited fever at an early stage. This only means that body temperature cannot be viewed as a major factor in diagnosis of COVID-19, especially at the early stage of infection.

Diarrhea and vomiting are uncommon in patients. Pneumonia is the most common complication suffered by patients at 79.1 percent. The median age of the COVID-19 cases involved is 47 years, and 41.9 percent have been female.

Only a handful of children have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and public officials believe it is because children have a stronger immune system compared to adults. With age, immune systems weaken. This leaves the elderly at an especially higher risk of developing serious complications from a respiratory illness caused by the virus.

It is also important to note that a re-infection is possible for this virus. Instead of the human body to develop immunity against the virus in a case of re-infection, that is not so with this virus. According to a doctor on the frontline in China’s city of Wuhan, who have chosen to remain anonymous, “it’s highly possible to get infected a second time. A few people recovered from the first time by their own immune system, but the meds they use are damaging their heart tissue, and when they get it the second time, the antibody doesn’t help but makes it worse, and they die a sudden death from heart failure,” he says in a message forwarded to Taiwan News.

coronavirus-covid-19
COVID-19

It is also interesting to note that COVID-19 does not appear to pass from pregnant women to foetus during pregnancy.

Wei Zhang, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told Healthline: “it appears that the transmission routes of the virus do not include amniotic fluid, cord blood, or breast milk, all of which may be routes for a vertical transmission.”

But it is still too soon to know for certain how COVID-19 can affect pregnancies as this study only looked at those in their third trimester.

The exact way that the disease is transmitted is yet to be determined but, in general, respiratory diseases are spread via drops of fluids when someone coughs or sneezes, or by touching a surface infected with the virus. The growing global concern about the dangers is due to the fact that it is airborne so it can rapidly spread among travelers, health-care workers, and other patients, making it more contagious,

For now there are no available treatments for COVID-19 and those who catch it usually recover on their own. They can ease the process by taking pain and fever medications, using a humidifier, taking hot showers, drinking plenty of fluids and resting.

To protect against any viral illness, the global health agency recommends that people wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth to minimize the risk of transmission. It also recommends covering the mouth and nose with an elbow or tissue while sneezing and coughing, and seeking medical care in case of fever, cough and shortness of breath.

COVID-19 in Africa

The readiness of Africa has been a point of discussion in this outbreak. Poorly equipped hospitals with many lacking basic supplies and reliable electricity, present a serious risk in terms of the COVID-19 outbreak in many African countries.

coronavirus-in-africa
COVID-19 African Exposure

China is Africa’s most important trading partner, with hundreds of travelers arriving in Africa from China every day and the continent is home to more than a million Chinese. About 80000 African students studying in China (4000 of which are in the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan), the chances that the virus could be transmitted to African countries increases. This makes the risk of an outbreak on the continent very, very high. Though only one case of the virus has been reported in Africa, in Egypt precisely, the carrier of the virus was a foreigner and he has been placed under isolation. However, Africans have reason to be afraid about the virus entering the continent.

Africa is not a stranger to outbreaks and epidemics but one of the continent key weaknesses in public health is in the area of containment of an outbreak. In fact the continent is still yet to recover from the Ebola outbreak of 2014 – 2016 and 2018 -2019.

The Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, which was more deadly than Coronavirus, infected 28,600 people and killed a staggering 11,325 in 2014 -2016. Spread by human contact, the outbreak was only brought to a stop by a massive international response.

In 2018 alone, 96 new infectious disease outbreaks were reported across 36 countries in Africa, including cholera, yellow fever, measles, and Ebola. An estimated 470,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa also died in 2018 from AIDS-related causes out of the estimated 770 000 worldwide. Ebola returned to Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018 and there was also a measles outbreak in the country. So far, Ebola has claimed over 2,200 and measles death toll is over 6,000 lives. The outbreak is still yet to be brought under in the country.

Zimbabwe, another country that has a close relationship with China, has a crippled health system. Since the pandemic began it has been documented that 1433 people have entered Zimbabwe from Coronavirus affected countries. This is a country whose health sector has shortages of basic medicines. Doctors have complained about not having adequate gloves and sometimes use their bare hands while masks and goggles are non-existent.

South Africa is using non-invasive thermometers at its ports of entry, with health officials going on board international aircraft to determine any sick travelers. Ivory Coast, where the continent’s first suspected case was reported, has also installed thermal imaging cameras at airports. But the problem with thermal imaging is that the virus can fool the kit. Studies have shown that less than half of patients (43.8%) exhibited fever at an early stage. Besides, if there was an outbreak in Zimbabwe, that is a threat to South Africa because of the porous borders between the two countries and the high volume of irregular migration.

Nigeria is still paralyzed by electricity blackouts which makes running a modern healthcare system impossible.

The situation is so bad that the nation’s president, Muhammadu Buhari and government officials in the country frequently travel to other countries for basic healthcare services. So there is no way the country can handle a COVID-19 epidemic.

Coronavirus from Wuhan
Coronavirus

However, the Africa Centre for Disease Control – the AU institution established to strengthen the ability of member states to respond quickly and effectively to disease threats has activated its Emergency Operations Centre.

WHO also identified 13 African countries (Algeria, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) as high priorities based on volume of travel to and from China.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also stepped up partnerships with African health ministries, and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation committed $10 million to combat the outbreak—half to China and half to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

Some African airlines have also cancelled flights to and from China including RwandAir, Kenya Airways and Air Mauritius, but Ethiopian Airlines still operates regular flights between five African cities and China. Flights from China are also continuing to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, with 200 million people.

Africans have reasons to fear in case of an outbreak given the fragile public health systems in the continent, a COVID-19 outbreak of the virus will overwhelm and cause a total collapse to the underfunded health sector in Africa and many African countries might not be able to cope with the spread, especially seeing how contagious the virus is.

To further put this in perspective, how many African countries have the resources to construct isolation centers in the case of an outbreak. With the level at which the virus spreads, an outbreak will bring a total disaster. Even China, with all its resources, admitted to being short of face masks and liquid soap, and has been asking for support for medical equipment and supplies. So where would that leave Africa nations that have already restrained by resources and never make plans for emergencies like this.

READ ALSO: Locust plague, Coronavirus A Global Economic Threat

But there might be hope yet for Africa after all, some studies have suggested that Africa’s climate may just be too hot for the survival of COVID-19.

According to Channel News Asia, “ studies done many years ago showed that the “regular” Coronavirus can survive on surfaces 30 times longer in places with a temperature of 6 degrees Celsius compared to those where the temperature is 20 degrees Celsius and humidity levels are high.”

Also respiratory droplets spread further when the air is cold and dry, because the virus survives much longer compared to how it would in high temperature climates with high humidity.

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