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WHO: Africa Has Had 97 Times More COVID-19 Cases Than Counted

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While countries around the globe have struggled to tally their true number of COVID-19 infections, a new study shows the number of confirmed cases in Africa is only a fraction of the actual cases.

Published on April 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) study estimated that more than two-thirds of Africans have been infected by COVID-19 since the pandemic began — 97 times more than the continent’s confirmed cases.

On average, the number of true infections worldwide was 16 times higher than confirmed cases, the study said.

“While new cases and deaths continue to decline across the continent, fresh analysis conducted by the WHO reveals that available data is likely only scratching the surface of the real extent of coronavirus infections in Africa,” WHO regional director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said in a statement.

More than 11.4 million confirmed cases and more than 252,000 deaths were reported on the continent as of April 24, according to data from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

The WHO study, which is currently under peer review, found that 800 million people in Africa had been infected with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, compared with 8.2 million reported cases as of September 2021.

International reviews of blood samples have found a substantial undercounting of cases with 45.2% of the world population estimated to have been infected with COVID-19 by September 2021.

“It is, however, difficult to compare figures for Africa with those of other regions, as many of the studies conducted cover different time periods and the testing strategies varied greatly across regions,” Moeti said.

The study combined 151 previous studies in Africa, analyzing blood samples to determine the proportion of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.

It found a massive spike in infections from 3% in June 2020 to 65% in September 2021, which coincided with the emergence of the beta and delta variants.

Throughout most of Africa, diagnostic testing is typically focused on travelers and people with symptoms. Seroprevalence studies offer data on asymptomatic cases that would otherwise be undetected. The WHO said Africa has a higher proportion of asymptomatic cases (67%) than other parts of the world.

Moeti called for greater testing throughout the continent.

“Testing enables us to track the virus in real-time, monitor its evolution and assess the emergence of new variants,” she said. “Countries must ramp up testing, contact tracing and surveillance so we can stay a step ahead of COVID-19.”

As of April 24, Africa CDC statistics show that more than 105 million tests have been administered on the continent’s population of more than 1.3 billion people.

South Africa has conducted the most tests in Africa — more than 24.3 million on a population of more than 60 million. Nigeria has administered just over 5 million tests on a population of more than 211 million.

Moeti urged people to remain vigilant as the pandemic continues.

“The risks of more lethal variants emerging which overwhelm immunity gained from past infections cannot be brushed aside,” she said. “We cannot declare victory yet against COVID-19.”

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