The World Health Organisation says 29 million to 44 million Africans may get infected with COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail, according to a study.
The WHO Regional Office for Africa in Brazzaville, Congo disclosed this in a statement posted on its website.
The UN health agency also said the study revealed that 83,000 to 190,000 people in Africa could die of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.
It said: “The research, which is based on prediction modelling, looks at 47 countries in the WHO African Region with a total population of one billion.
“The new estimates are based on modifying the risk of transmission and disease severity by variables specific to each country in order to adjust for the unique nature of the region.
“The model predicts the observed slower rate of transmission, lower age of people with severe disease and lower mortality rates compared to what is seen in most affected countries in the rest of the world.
“This is largely driven by social and environmental factors slowing the transmission, and a younger population that has benefitted from the control of communicable diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis to reduce possible vulnerabilities.”
The lower rate of transmission, however, suggested a more prolonged outbreak over a few years, according to the study.
It also revealed that smaller African countries alongside Algeria, South Africa and Cameroon were at a high risk if containment measures were not prioritised.
WHO said: “Containment measures, which include contact tracing, isolation, improved personal hygiene practices and physical distancing aim to slow down the transmission of the virus so its effects happen at a rate manageable by the health system.
“Physical distancing is not about the confinement of people but rather avoiding unnecessary contacts as people live, work and socialise as a means to interrupt transmission.”
The statement quoted Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, as saying: “While COVID-19 likely won’t spread as exponentially in Africa as it has elsewhere in the world, it likely will smoulder in transmission hotspots.
“COVID-19 can become a fixture in our lives for the next several years unless a proactive approach is taken by many governments in the region. We need to test, trace, isolate and treat.”
It further said that the predicted number of cases that would require hospitalisation would overwhelm the available medical capacity in much of Africa.
It said: “There will be an estimated 3.6 million – 5.5 million COVID-19 hospitalisations, of which 82,000 – 167,000 will be severe cases requiring oxygen, and 52,000 – 107,000 will be critical cases requiring breathing support.
“Such a huge number of patients in hospitals will severely strain the health capacities of countries.”
It said a survey of health services in the African region undertaken in March 2020 based on self-reports by 47 countries to WHO, revealed that there were on average nine intensive care unit beds per one million people.
It said: “These will be woefully inadequate. Additionally, the physical access to these services to the general population is very low, suggesting many people will not even have the chance to get to the needed care.
“Diseases that can be managed can easily become more complicated as a result.
“The study recommends that countries across Africa need to expand the capacity, particularly of primary hospitals and ensure that basic emergency care is included in primary health systems.”
The statement further quoted Moeti as saying: “The importance of promoting effective containment measures is ever more crucial, as sustained and widespread transmission of the virus can severely overwhelm our health systems.
“Curbing a large scale outbreak is far costlier than the ongoing preventive measures governments are undertaking to contain the spread of the virus.”
All countries in the WHO African Region were using these results through the WHO country offices to inform their containment actions.
The detailed methods and results were currently in press at the British Medical Journal-Global Health after extensive peer review and validation.