Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti
Good morning, good afternoon, bonjour and welcome to all the journalists joining this press conference today, where we will discuss the heightened risk of zoonotic diseases, like monkeypox, being transmitted between animals and humans.
We will also spend some time on the latest trends in COVID-19 cases in the African Region. Although coronaviruses are classified as zoonotic, no animal reservoir has yet been identified for SARS-CoV2.
I am pleased to be joined today by epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist Dr Franklin Asiedu-Bekoe, Ghana’s Director of Public Health. Welcome Dr Asiedu-Bekoe. And Dr Karim Tounkara, the Regional Representative for Africa of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Bonjour Karim. It’s been a while. A very warm welcome to you both.
More than 60% of human infectious diseases, and more than 75% of emerging infectious diseases, are caused by pathogens shared with wild or domestic animals.
They account for a substantial burden of disease, resulting in about a billion sick people, and millions of deaths globally every year.
For Africa, the threat is severe. Indeed, new WHO analysis has revealed a 63% increase in the number of zoonotic outbreaks in the African Region in the 10 years to 2022, compared to the previous decade.
One in every three confirmed public health events in the Region in the past decade was a zoonotic disease outbreak, with a significant spike in 2019 and 2020, when these diseases accounted for half of all public health events.
A deeper dive reveals that Ebola and similar haemorrhagic fevers constitute nearly 70% of these outbreaks. The remainder include, among others, monkeypox, Dengue fever, anthrax and plague.
Although there has been a notable increase in monkeypox cases since April this year, compared to the same period in 2021, the positive news is the numbers are still lower than for the 2020 outbreak peak, when the Region recorded its highest ever monthly cases.
Following a sudden drop in 2021, 203 confirmed cases of monkeypox have been recorded in the Region since the beginning of the year. That means, confirmed cases. Available case-specific data for 175 of these cases shows that just over half the patients were men, with an average age of 17 years.
However, Africa cannot be allowed to become a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases.
It is true that infections originating in animals have been jumping to humans for centuries. But, as rising urbanization encroaches on the natural habitats of the continent’s wildlife, and the demand for food from an especially fast-growing population burgeons, the risk is heightened.
The addition of improved road, rail and airlinks, which remove the natural barrier that poor transportation infrastructure provided, opens the way for the spread of zoonotic disease outbreaks from remote to urban areas.
The West African Ebola outbreaks are evidence of the devastating number of cases, and deaths, that can result when zoonotic diseases arrive in our cities. We all have vivid recollections of that.
Africa needs a multisectoral response, encompassing experts in human, animal and environmental health, working in collaboration with communities. Equally crucial are reliable surveillance mechanisms and response capacities, to rapidly detect pathogens and mount robust responses to quell any potential spread.
Since 2008, WHO has strengthened its regional collaboration with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to support efforts to address zoonotic outbreaks across Africa.
Recently, the three agencies worked together in response to the 14th Ebola outbreak, which has just ended in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is exactly this “all-hands-on-deck” approach that is needed to counter the threat, and give us the best possible chance of averting a new big health shock in Africa.
Turning now to COVID-19, the number of new cases on the continent decreased marginally last week. However, the overall plateau continues to be sustained by increasing case numbers reported from North Africa for the eighth consecutive week.
The surge is being driven primarily by the situation in Morocco and Tunisia, which spurred a 17% increase in new cases in North Africa, compared to last week’s statistics.
Botswana, Namibia and South Africa all reversed their recent surge in new cases in four to six weeks, thanks to significantly improved capacities for rapid detection and response to curb further spread.
The same trend is expected in the North African countries, which have excellent detection and response capacities, and the curve is already beginning to trend downwards in Morocco.
This potential for continuing surges highlights the fact that countries can’t afford to ease up on efforts to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19, especially their health care workers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities. These are the most vulnerable groups to severe illness and death.
This phase of the pandemic may well be characterized by relatively low incidence, and much lower risk for hospitalization and death, but the Omicron variant remains highly transmissible, and the pandemic is far from over.
Thank you all very much to you all for joining us, and I look forward very much to what I am sure will be a very interesting discussion today.