African countries braced for ‘inevitable’ arrival of coronavirus

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Health centres step up preparations as World Health Organization raises fears about ability to cope with major outbreak

African health authorities are stepping up preparedness for coronavirus after the head of the World Health Organzation described the outbreak as a very grave threat for the rest of the world.

The number of African countries that can test for the virus tripled to 15 this week, with more expected to have testing labs up and running in the coming days. The head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said health centres were on high alert for new cases.

Yao, who was involved in dealing with the Ebola outbreak in 2014-16, and more recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said NGOs such as Mdecins Sans Frontires and Samaritans Purse were providing technical guidance on setting up treatment centres. A teleconference is planned with regional partners this week to discuss treatment capacity, he said.

If we have a scenario where we have a large number of cases, we want NGO partners to increase the capacity and to provide equipment like oxygen and respiratory machines. They have the ability to deploy treatment centres in a very short time.

Dr Michael Ryan, the head of the WHO health emergencies programme, told a press conference on Monday: When you consider that 90% to 100% of patients in hospital require supplemental oxygen, 20% to 25% of those patients require intensive care and 5% to 10% of patients may require some form of mechanical ventilation, thats a huge demand on a system.

John Nkengasong, the director of Africa CDC, said the increased ability to test for the virus in Africa would encourage those with suspected symptoms to come forward, adding that one theory for not seeing cases in Africa was a shortage of testing facilities.

The hope is that this new turnaround time, in hours rather than days, [will make] people feel, if they have the symptoms, they will report for testing, Nkengasong said.

If you keep someone for days, human behaviour suggests people will stay away. Now that many countries have the ability, there is the possibility that we will see cases in the coming weeks. Time will tell.

Next week, South Africa will host additional training for a further 25 countries, Nkengasong said.

The WHO has also shipped an additional 29 diagnostic kits. Up until recently, most countries with suspected cases had to send the samples to Senegal, South Africa or even Paris for testing.

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