Amid the fastest surge in COVID-19 cases Africa has seen so far in the pandemic, the regional office for the World Health Organisation (WHO) says the virus deaths in the continent have risen sharply in recent weeks.
Fatalities are rising as hospital admissions increase rapidly as countries face shortages in oxygen and intensive care beds.
COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 40 per cent last week, reaching 6,273, or nearly 1,900 more than the previous week.
The number is just shy of the 6,294 peak, recorded in January.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said “deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point.
“Under-resourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients.”
Africa’s case fatality rate, which is the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases, stands at 2.6 per cent compared to the global average of 2.2 per cent.
Most of the recent deaths, or 83 per cent, occurred in Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.
COVID-19 cases on the continent have risen for eight consecutive weeks, topping six million on Tuesday, WHO reported.
An additional one million cases were recorded over the past month, marking the shortest time to reach this grim milestone. Comparatively, it took roughly three months for cases to jump from four million to five million.
The surge is being driven by public fatigue with key health measures and an increased spread of virus variants.
The Delta variant, the most transmissible, has been detected in 21 countries, while the Alpha and Beta variants have been found in more than 30 countries each.
Globally, there are four COVID-19 virus variants of concern. On Wednesday, a WHO emergency committee meeting in Geneva warned of the “strong likelihood” of new and possibly more dangerous variants emerging and spreading.
WHO is working with African countries to improve COVID-19 treatment and critical care capacities.
The UN agency and partners are also delivering oxygen cylinders and other essential medical supplies, and have supported the manufacture and repair of oxygen production plants.
“The number one priority for African countries is boosting oxygen production to give critically ill patients a fighting chance’’, Moeti said. “Effective treatment is the last line of defence against COVID-19 and it must not crumble.”
The rising caseload comes amid inadequate vaccine supplies. So far, 52 million people in Africa have been inoculated, which is just 1.6 per cent of total COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide.
Meanwhile, roughly 1.5 per cent of the continent’s population, or 18 million people, are fully vaccinated, compared with over 50 per cent in some high-income countries.