COVID-19: Why has Africa been spared so far?

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Only two countries in Africa have registered cases of COVID-19, despite the increasingly tight links between the two regions. A Deutsche Welle report says it may be pure chance or it may be because droplet diseases don't seem to spread so readily on the continent.

Before the novel coronavirus outbreak, about eight flights a day operated between China and African nations. This booming travel between China and Africa is a possible route for transmission of the new coronavirus. So, the report says why has Africa been spared so far?

A simple explanation, say public health experts, could be that the continent simply hasn't had the ability to detect cases up until now. But, the report says, this situation has changed. Medical teams from more than a dozen African countries met in Senegal last week to learn how the diagnose the new virus. Now 19 African nations are able to test for COVID-19, including Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Sierra Leone, WHO Africa clarified.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also identified 13 priority countries in Africa with strong links to China and told DW it has dispatched experts to eight of these to help coordinate preparedness efforts. The priority countries have all introduced screenings at airports, as well as some seaports, according to the WHO.

Paul Hunter, a UK-based specialist in infectious diseases and epidemics, largely puts the absence of COVID-19 on the continent down to luck. "If you look at how COVID-19 has spread to non-Chinese countries, most of the spread has been pretty much due to the general intensity of travel around the world," he is quoted in the report as saying. "There is nothing special about Africa not having seen a case other than pure chance at the moment."

Another theory is that the continent is too warm for the COVID-19 virus to thrive. "When the season is warmer and more humid, the droplets transmitting the (flu virus) tend to fall out of the air more quickly, therefore limiting its transmission," explained Yap Boum, the Africa representative for Epicentre, the research arm of Doctors without Borders (MSF). Tropical countries aren't immune from seasonality, with flu peaking in the dry season in countries like Cameroon, Boum said. However, not all coronaviruses spread through respiratory droplets and Boum cautions that it is too early to tell if COVID-19 is transmitted in a similar fashion. The report says Hunter also emphasises that the COVID-19 virus "hasn't been around long enough" to know if its transmission will be affected by a change in seasons.

But even if the coronavirus makes its way to Africa, Hunter doesn't believe the continent will be as hard hit as China. "I doubt we will see a big outbreak in Africa," the medical professor at the University of East Anglia as well at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa said in the report. "Droplet diseases don't seem to be as big an issue in Africa," he said, adding that SARS, a respiratory disease that is also a coronavirus, spread through 26 countries in 2003 but failed to gain a hold in Africa. Influenza epidemics are also less intense on the continent, he pointed out.

In addition, in Africa people generally don't live crammed together in such densely populated areas and they also spend a lot more time out-of-doors in Africa than they do in northern countries.

According to the report, there have been rumours swirling on social media that African countries haven't seen a case of coronavirus yet because Africans are immune. Disease experts emphatically reject this idea. "That is nonsense. There is no evidence what so ever. That is false news, false facts," Hunter said.

Full DW report

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