"A strong re-awakening of collective responsibilities" is required to tackle the Covid-19 surge in the Eastern Mediterranean, a leading World Health Organisation official said on Tuesday.
“Both globally and regionally, there has been a substantial increase in cases over the past week,” said Ahmed Al Mandhari, the Cairo-based WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean.
This is largely due to new variants, people not following coronavirus rules, social gatherings around religious events, a slow vaccine rollout in some countries and vaccine hesitancy, Dr Al Mandhari said.
He was speaking at a virtual press conference to mark World Immunisation Week.
“I call for a strong re-awakening of our collective governmental, social and individual responsibilities to protect ourselves and others,” he said.
The region comprises 21 countries and the Palestinian Territories, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, with a population of nearly 679 million people.
“In 2020, our region reported 5 million cases in total. This year, in the first 13 weeks alone, an additional 3 million cases have been reported,” Dr Al Mandhari said.
Between March 17 and April 9 "we reported as many cases as we did in the first six months of 2020," he said.
The region recorded close to 178,000 deaths from the beginning of the outbreak up to April 25, according to the WHO.
India has been particularly hard hit recently, recording an average of more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases a day.
Some experts fear a new Covid-19 variant first detected in India may be fuelling this surge.
Such developments in areas outside the Eastern Mediterranean “can significantly affect the course of the pandemic in our region”, Dr Al Mandhari said.
He also said many people in the region are not following basic precautions – such as mask-wearing, physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings.
“Mask use is concerningly low in some countries in the region.
"Religious events that involve social gatherings, like Ramadan and Easter, as well as the coming Sham El Nessim and Eid, increase the chances of people being infected through close contact with people who may be sick without even knowing it,” Dr Al Mandhari said
All 22 members of the region have started vaccination, but only about 36 million vaccine doses have been administered and the roll-out has been slow in many countries.
More than half the UAE population and about 40 per cent of Bahrain's have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
In contrast, less than 1 per cent of the population has been vaccinated in countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria.
The Covax initiative, which is co-led by the WHO, aims to secure vaccines for poorer countries.
It has has delivered more than 5.6 million doses to 19 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, with Syria, – which received 256,000 doses – being the latest.
The WHO said 10 million more vaccine doses are due to be shipped by the end of June.
“People are not being vaccinated at the rate that we need to see to bring us closer to stopping the spread of Covid-19,” Dr Al Mandhari said.
“While this may be due to vaccine shortages at a global level, vaccine hesitancy in our region remains high.”
Hesitancy is mainly due to concerns about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, due to reports of rare blood clots and misinformation, he said.
"Vaccines work. I urge you all to take the Covid-19 vaccine when offered. This is not a personal choice – it is a personal responsibility," Dr Al Mandhari said.
Dr Rana Hajjeh, WHO director of programme management for the region, said the benefits of taking the Covid-19 vaccine far outweigh the risks and that inoculation is the only way to get the virus under control.
"The more the virus is around, the more mutations we will see. This is the natural outcome," she warned.