LONDON - Africa is braced for a potential coronavirus pandemic, as experts warn health systems on the continent could be overwhelmed. Beyond its source in China, outbreaks have hit South Korea, Iran and Italy, with cases detected in dozens of other countries. But experts said the apparent delay in the virus reaching Africa on a large scale has given precious time to prepare.
Single cases of the coronavirus have been detected in Egypt and Algeria, but so far, there has been no large-scale outbreak in Africa. The World Health Organization's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Thursday that no country can assume it is safe from the virus.
"This virus doesn't respect borders. It does not distinguish between races or ethnicities," Tedros said. "It has no regard for a country's GDP or level of development. The point is not only to prevent cases arriving on your shores. The point is what you do when you have cases."
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The apparent delay in any African outbreak has given the continent time to prepare. Until this month, only two laboratories in the whole of Africa were able to test for the coronavirus. The World Health Organization said now more than half of sub-Saharan countries are equipped to diagnose the virus.
"It's not as extensive as we need it to be, and the testing that's going on in countries isn't as complete as we'd like it to be," said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "But the fact that we've been able to stand this up in relatively short amounts of time, I think represents progress."
It's feared that an undetected outbreak could rapidly escalate into a health crisis. Around 80% of people with the coronavirus have only mild symptoms, meaning the true prevalence is likely underreported. Most fatalities have occurred in those with underlying health problems. But a pandemic in Africa would overwhelm medical facilities, said Dr. Nathalie MacDermott of King's College London.
"It's an issue when it comes to managing other medical problems," MacDermott said. "So, that means that people with heart disease and things aren't necessarily able to visit the hospital or to get an appointment. And subsequently, we could see increased mortality from other medical problems, simply because they can't access the health system."
Experts said many African nations must improve disease surveillance and operations to trace the spread of infection. They also warn that in the event of a global pandemic, the international community must be ready to step in and help countries with weaker health systems.