Middle East Covid surge to continue for 'a few more weeks'

New variants, easing of public health measures and low vaccination rates have been causing rise in cases, says WHO

A child wearing personal protective equipment enters a community centre administering the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine to children and the elderly. Bloomberg
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A rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths has been recorded over the past five weeks in an area stretching from Morocco to Pakistan and encompassing 22 countries, the World Health Organisation has said.

The circulation of new variants, the easing of public health measures and low vaccination rates have led to the increase, WHO officials said on Tuesday.

“We anticipate this surge to continue for a few more weeks,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the WHO's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, at a press briefing in Cairo.

Almost 22.5 million cases and more than 344,000 deaths have been reported in the region.

Sub-variants of Omicron, including BA. 4 and BA. 5, have been driving waves of cases, hospital admissions and deaths around the world because of increased transmissibility.

Globally, during the week of July 11 to July 17, the number of weekly cases plateaued. There were just under 6.3 million new cases after an increasing trend during the previous five weeks, according to the WHO’s weekly epidemiological report. The number of new weekly deaths increased, with 11,000 reported.

The WHO Emergency Committee on Covid-19 met earlier this month and concluded that the virus remains a public health emergency of international concern.

“While many countries are easing the restrictions and many people are getting tired … Covid-19 continues to infect and kill people around the world every day, especially the most vulnerable,” said Dr Maha El Rabbat, WHO Special Envoy of the Director General for Covid-19 Preparedness and Response, at the briefing on Tuesday.

“This is not yet the time to act as if Covid-19 is over,” she said.

Twenty-one countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region have reported the detection of at least one variant of concern and 17 have detected Omicron.

Vaccination in the region still lags behind WHO’s global targets of 70 per cent coverage and 100 per cent coverage of priority groups, such as healthcare workers, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

Only 45 per cent of the region’s population is fully vaccinated, 8 per cent are partially vaccinated, and 47 per cent have not yet received a single dose, “placing them at increased risk and allowing the virus to further spread and mutate”, Dr Al Mandhari said.

Research shows vaccinations prevented almost 19.8 million deaths from Covid-19 globally in 2021, Dr El Rabbat said.

WHO officials emphasised the urgent need to be vaccinated and continue to adhere to public health measures, such as mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and ensuring adequate ventilation.

Monkeypox warning

Monkeypox was declared a public health emergency by the WHO a few days ago. There are 26 confirmed cases of reported from five countries in the Emro region.

“Although few monkeypox cases have been reported in our region, we remain at risk, and we are working with countries and partners to increase preparedness levels while supporting the response in those countries with confirmed cases,” Dr Al Mandhari said.

Monkeypox diagnostic kits have been delivered to 20 countries in the region, and all Gulf countries have the technical capacity to test for the disease, he said.

Globally, confirmed monkey pox cases have increased steadily from 3,040 cases in 47 countries to more than 16,000 cases in 75 countries and territories, including five deaths, in just one month, Dr El Rabbat said.

“We expect that these numbers will continue to increase,” she said.

“To date, the confirmed cases have been reported mainly among men, especially men having sex with men, but there have also been some cases among women and children.”

While most cases are mild, about 8 per cent of patients are admitted to hospital.

Monkeypox is not nearly as widespread as Covid-19, and was declared a public health emergency due to certain criteria, including being an extraordinary event, carrying the risk of spreading internationally and requiring a coordinated response, said Dr Richard Brennan, regional emergency director at WHO Emro.

Over the last couple of decades, the WHO has declared seven public health emergencies, while only H1N1 influenza in 2009 and Covid-19 were defined as pandemics.

“Most public health emergencies of international concern are not pandemics,” Dr Brennan said. “The chances of monkeypox being characterised as a pandemic are limited.”

Updated: July 26, 2022, 12:49 PM