WHO says Omicron overwhelming health systems in Eastern Mediterranean

Covid-19 cases continue to climb in the region and even mild infections are cause for concern

Medics prepare doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the booster campaign in Tunisia. EPA
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Covid-19 cases continue to climb in the Eastern Mediterranean region as a result of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, placing an increased burden on healthcare systems and workers.

The highly contagious Omicron variant comprises the majority of new cases detected in the region, Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean (Emro), said on Wednesday.

The Eastern Mediterranean is made up of 21 member states and occupied Palestine, with a population of about 679 million people.

The region has reported more than 18.3 million cases and almost 320,000 deaths from Covid-19, and cases increased by 37 per cent in the week ending on January 22 compared to the previous week.

“The current Covid-19 situation in our region continues to be of concern,” Dr Al Mandhari said at a briefing in Cairo.

“Many of us who were aware of only a few people in our immediate circles being infected last year are now seeing the virus appear in our own homes and among those closest to us,” he said. “And let me be clear — Omicron can still cause a full spectrum of disease: from asymptomatic infection, mild infection, hospitalisation and even death.”

Omicron, which has been detected in more than 140 countries worldwide, contributed to an 89 per cent increase in cases in the region in the first week of January compared to the last week of December.

During the second week of January, a 71 per cent increase was reported compared to the week before.

“While most cases due to the variant may be milder in severity, it is still causing hospitalisations and deaths, and even less severe cases are overwhelming health facilities,” Dr Al Mandhari said.

Record cases in Egypt

On Tuesday, Egypt recorded 1,800 new Covid-19 infections, the highest number of daily cases since the pandemic began.

In Libya, daily Covid-19 cases have increased from 400 to more than 2,000 since Omicron was first detected in the country on December 29.

“Covid-19 has placed a huge strain on the Libyan health system,” said Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Libya.

She said the country’s health facilities lack regular supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), medicines and oxygen.

Only about 14 per cent of the Libyan population has been fully vaccinated and the WHO is working with local authorities to strengthen vaccination efforts.

Dr Al Mandhari reiterated several recommendations on how to end the pandemic, such as expanding vaccination efforts, adhering to public health and social measures, and containing the increasing number of cases.

“Surveillance, testing, isolation, contact tracing and treatment remain the key components of any national response,” he said.

He emphasised the need for a “committed whole-of-government and whole-of-society response”, commending countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia for engagement of “the highest levels of leadership” and successful vaccination drives.

Dr Al Mandhari also encouraged high-income countries to share their resources and best practices with those who have limited capacities.

“We have seen good examples of resource sharing from countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, who have provided vaccine doses to other countries within and outside the region,” he said.

This month, the WHO recommended two new Covid-19 treatments, a rheumatoid arthritis drug called baricitinib and a monoclonal antibody called sotrovimab.

Baricitinib is strongly recommended for patients with severe or critical Covid-19. Sotrovimab is conditionally recommended for treating mild or moderate Covid-19 in patients who are at high risk of admission to hospital, such as those who are older, immunocompromised or have underlying conditions and are unvaccinated.

The WHO is working with partners to make sure that these treatments are available for low- and middle-income countries, Dr Al Mandhari said.

Antibiotics for the treatment of Covid-19, which is a viral infection, should be avoided, said Dr Chiori Kodama, Infectious Hazards Management medical officer with WHO Emro.

She said the use of antibiotics during the pandemic has become a global concern, resulting in the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“Some patients with severe Covid-19 develop bacterial co-infections. If there are no signs of bacterial co-infections, using antibiotics should be avoided,” Dr Kodama said.

Omicron around the world — in pictures

Updated: January 26, 2022, 3:15 PM