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Youthful population will protect Africa, but 190,000 could still die from Covid-19: WHO

A new WHO model suggests up to a quarter of a billion people in Africa will catch Covid-19 within a year, with between 150,000 and 190,000 deaths.
A new WHO model suggests up to a quarter of a billion people in Africa will catch Covid-19 within a year, with between 150,000 and 190,000 deaths.
Image: 123rf/3dgenerator

Nearly a quarter of a billion Africans will catch coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic, and up to 190,000 will die unless urgent action is taken to control the infection.

A model by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Africa office, published on Friday in the British Medical Journal Global Health, predicts a lower rate of exposure and viral spread than in other parts of the world, and up to 190,000 deaths.

But the rise in hospital admissions, care needs and impact on other illnesses would severely strain limited health resources and worsen the impact of the virus, they said.

The risk of exposure is driven by factors including household size, population density, extent of slums and road infrastructure.

The model says larger countries, including SA, Cameroon, and Algeria, are most at risk, while Nigeria is expected to have the largest number of infections overall, followed by Algeria and SA.

Many mathematical models developed to predict transmission and death rates in Africa have not adequately incorporated characteristics distinct to Africa, such as its youthful population and lower obesity rates, the researchers said.

“The biggest factor that plays out in our numbers is age,” said data analyst Humphrey Karamagi. “We also have very few people who are obese, though the numbers are rising. 

“We tried to factor in what we are seeing on the ground, and we are seeing slower transmission rates in African countries compared to Europe and the US.”

The model suggests the pandemic may spread more slowly in Africa, with fewer severe cases and deaths than in other parts of the world, but is likely to linger for longer - possibly for several years.

In all, about one in four (22%) of the 1 billion people in the WHO Africa Region would be infected in the first year. About 37 million could have symptoms, but this figure could be as high as 44 million.

An estimated 4.6 million people, but possibly as many as 5.5 million, would need to be admitted to hospital: 140,000 would have severe Covid-19 infection and 89,000 would be critically ill. About 150,000 lives would be lost as a result, but this figure could be as high as 190,000.

The increase in hospital admissions and care needs would divert already limited resources away from HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition, worsening the impact of coronavirus, the researchers warned.

Some hospital admissions would be in areas where access to health services is already poor, particularly for the most disadvantaged. And limited testing and diagnostic capacity, alongside poor monitoring and data collection systems, particularly in rural areas, would make it even harder to respond effectively.

“These system capacity challenges highlight the need to ensure the success of the containment measures to avoid the need for mitigation measures that, despite relatively fewer cases expected in the region, will be difficult to institute,” they said.

And the success of containment measures, such as contact tracing, isolation, handwashing and physical distancing, is critical, “as health systems are not designed to mitigate against the implications of widespread community transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” they add.

The WHO African region includes 47 countries but excludes Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia.

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