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African Health Ministers urge greater vigilance in COVID-19 fight

NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 25 – African Health Ministers gathering for the resumed Seventieth session of the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa took stock this week of the region’s efforts in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, with calls to step up vigilance and head off a possible resurgence of infections.

Opening the meeting, Jacqueline Mikolo, Minister of Health and Population, Republic of Congo and Chairperson of the Seventieth Regional Committee, called for increased high-level political commitment, solidarity, information-sharing, and research on traditional medicines in the fight against COVID-19.

Minister Mikolo reiterated “our commitment to preserve the gains made and work hard and together to contain a possible second wave of COVID-19 in Africa.” She also noted that it was crucial to “fight complacency [in observing COVID-19 preventive measures] by strengthening communication and epidemiological surveillance.”

Most African countries took swift action early, and these efforts to limit movement and gatherings along with implementing key public health measures have helped keep cases and deaths in Africa lower than in many other parts of the world.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, underscored the importance of bolstering prevention, notably as people travel or gather for end-of-year celebrations. “As we observe cases surge in parts of Europe and the Americas, and an uptick in our regional daily cases graph, we cannot be complacent. We need to prepare for a resurgence, including scaling-up precautions in risky situations such as festive and elections-related gatherings.”

Over the past three weeks, the African region has recorded a steady increase in COVID-19 cases. As of 22 November, 18 countries reported an increase of more than 20% in the previous seven days when compared with the last seven days.

“We all need to continue to be vigilant in our testing, isolation and treatment, and our strong communication on the non-pharmaceutical interventions,” said Hon. Lia Tadesse Gebremedhin, Ethiopia’s Minister of Health and Second Vice-Chair of the Seventieth Regional Committee. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis unlike anything any of us has experienced in our lifetimes, yet it can be a catalyst for building the safer, healthier and more sustainable Africa we all want.”

At the Special event on the COVID-19 response in the WHO African Region, which took place during the Regional Committee, South African Minister of Health Hon. Zweli Mkhize shared lessons from his country’s experience in fighting the virus. The Minister stressed the need for engagement at the highest levels for quick, evidence-based decisions, the timely use of innovative technologies, public and private sector collaboration and addressing the knock-on socio-economic impact of the pandemic, particularly among the most vulnerable groups.

“Right now, we are going through this COVID-19 fatigue, both from communities who are tired of wearing masks and [observing physical] distancing. We also have health workers who have been [through] a heavy burden, and now the resurgence is coming they are also showing a lot of fatigue. These are the areas we need to keep focusing on,” said Minister Mkhize.

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WHO has taken a range of actions to support countries to prepare to roll out new COVID-19 vaccines, including releasing new guidance on vaccination planning and deployment and creating a new COVID-19 online vaccine introduction and readiness assessment tool for African governments.

The virtual meeting continued discussions that began online on 25 August. More than 200 delegates and civil society representatives took part in the deliberations that also covered the WHO Programme Budget for 2022– 2023.

The Regional Committee meeting is the annual gathering of WHO Africa’s governing body, bringing together Health Ministers and senior officials from all 47 Member States of the WHO African Region. The Seventy-first session of the Regional Committee will be held in Lomé, Togo in 2021.

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