Winter is coming, and with it the annual flu, but with the deadly Covid-19 in the mix, sub-Saharan Africa could see a huge spike in cases. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African news agency(ANA)
Winter is coming, and with it the annual flu, but with the deadly Covid-19 in the mix, sub-Saharan Africa could see a huge spike in cases. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African news agency(ANA)

Winter looms with flu and tsunami of deadly viruses

By Shakirah Thebus Time of article published Mar 19, 2020

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Cape Town - Winter is coming, and with it the annual flu, but with the deadly Covid-19 in the mix, sub-Saharan Africa could see a huge spike in cases, with health services buckling under the strain.

According to Professor Wanda Markotter, director of University of Pretoria’s Centre for Viral Zoonoses, the flu season is approaching and will be accompanied by several other viruses with similar symptoms to Covid-19. Each of the cases will have to be tested to rule out Covid-19, which will place a huge diagnostic burden on health-care systems.

Markotter said regions within sub-Saharan Africa that do not have good diagnostic services in place to identify positive cases of Covid-19 quickly would be in trouble. She said this could also be the case for some developing countries.

“If testing results of positive Covid-19 cases cannot be released quickly to put containment measures in place, it will contribute towards the spread of the disease. South Africa is anticipating this and has additional plans in place to have more diagnostic capacity.”

Technical officer at the World Health Organisations regional office for Africa, Dr Mary Stephen, said the health-care system in Africa was not as strong as in Europe and the US, and if cases of Covid-19 go undetected and the virus spreads, it is going to overwhelm our health-care system, given the already high burden of other diseases.

Stephen said to prevent this from happening, countries needed to enhance their capacities for early detection, isolation and response.

She said the importation of the virus from China and other affected areas prompted the readiness capacities of regions within sub-Saharan Africa to detect and respond.

She said readiness capacities in these regions covered areas of co-ordination, surveillance, case management, laboratories, points of entry, risk communication, infection, prevention and control.

“What we saw from different countries was that the capacities vary from different countries and that the majority of countries had these capacities in place.

"Where we saw gaps was in areas of case management, and prevention and control.”

Stephen said basic training on how to manage severe cases, prevention and control was provided to clinicians at their headquarters in Brazzaville, Congo, last month and another was currently taking place. These clinicians would then return to their countries to implement the training.

“If we are able to do that, we can mitigate the challenges of these outbreaks. We need to make sure we are communicating to the general public the preventative measures.”

Steering committee member of the People’s Health Movement, Professor Louis Reynolds, said despite appropriate steps taken by the government, “we’re on the brink of a very serious outbreak”.

Reynolds said the virus would eventually enter all countries and what happened depended on a number of things, namely: social, economic and environmental conditions under which people lived; capacity of the health system to provide universal healthcare regardless of financial standings and how the government, private sector and civil society responded.

“Early, aggressive, and appropriate response from the government will not keep the virus out (nothing can do that), but it will slow down the spread. This is called ‘flattening the curve’. This will need trust and social solidarity,” said Reynolds.

He said to flatten the curve, people should practice three critical public health measures: physical social distancing, frequent hand washing and self-isolation for people with flu-like symptoms and those who had contact with someone from a Covid-19-affected area.

Reynolds said this, however, would be difficult for people in crowded living conditions, without easy access to soap and water and who depended on public transport daily. 

“Successfully flattening the curve will result in fewer people needing hospital care and a smaller chance of the health system being overwhelmed.”

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