By Aïssatou Diallo
The epidemic of viral pneumonia that began in late December in China, has spread around the world, infecting more than 2,700 people. Africa, which has important trade relations with China, is closely monitoring the situation.
The epidemic, which began in late December in Wuhan, China, has spread rapidly around the world and now affects 13 countries.
Some 5,974 people have been infected by the virus, according to Chinese officials. Over 80 people have already lost their lives.
Will the coronavirus epidemic spread to the African continent?
Africa is paying particular attention to the evolution of the epidemic, especially as the continent maintains a significant flow of trade with China. According to Beijing, trade between Africa and China increased by 2.2% in 2019, reaching $208 billion (189 billion euros), and the continent welcomed 121 million Chinese visitors in 2017 against 31 million in 2005.
“Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa are the main countries receiving travellers from China”, says Dr Ambrose Talisuna, epidemiologist and WHO regional adviser for health security in Africa. “In these countries, we have recommended to the authorities that they strengthen the screening of travellers at airports, including taking their body temperature.”
The World Health Organization recommends setting up quarantine rooms in airports, as well as preparing hospitals to receive potential patients.
China is the largest market outside Africa for Ethiopian Airlines, which runs 35 passenger flights per week, direct and daily, and 15 cargo flights, serving the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Chengdu.
A suspicious case in Abidjan
Several countries have already strengthened preventive measures at airports. Côte d’Ivoire reported Sunday its first suspected case of the coronavirus, according to the Ivorian Minister of Health, Dr Eugene Aouélé Aka.
“The Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene has been alerted by the airport authorities of Abidjan of the presence of a patient in an aircraft of Turkish Airlines from Beijing, bound for Abidjan,” read the statement. “It is a 34-year-old student from Côte d’Ivoire who has been living in Beijing for five years and who presented an influenza-like illness with coughing, sneezing, runny nose and breathing difficulty, which began on January 22, 2020 in Beijing.”
The patient was transferred to the pandemic cell at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Airport in Abidjan. Pending analysis results, this is the first suspected case of coronavirus on the continent.
On 23 January, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced “enhanced surveillance measures at ports of entry. Travelers arriving from Wuhan are subject to many questions upon arrival about possible symptoms of the disease and their travel itinerary,” it said.
A similar measure and increased surveillance has been put in place at airports in Kenya. Algeria, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Togo, Niger, Mali, and Senegal.
Increasing the number of toll-free numbers
In addition to information campaigns for health workers, several countries have set up toll-free numbers for the population.
In Senegal, the Ministry of Health and Social Action has recommended “going to the nearest health facility as soon as you have a sudden onset respiratory illness” or to call 800 00 50 50, a toll-free information number. The Togolese authorities invited anyone who has recently been in China to contact 22 22 20 73. The Ivorian Minister of Health “invited the population not to give in to panic and to call 143 (toll-free number) for any information”.
Equatorial Guinea issued a statement on 27 January about the impact that this epidemic could have on the oil market. The day before, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud, Saudi Energy Minister, expressed “confidence in the ability of the Chinese authorities to contain and eradicate the new coronavirus”, while adding that the Kingdom would be ready to react in case of “psychological factors affecting oil prices”.
Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons in Equatorial Guinea, said, “As a member of OPEC, Equatorial Guinea adheres to the declaration of Saudi Arabia and is fully prepared to engage in coordination action with the organisation if future developments of the coronavirus were to affect the stability of the world oil market.”
A new strain still under study
Rabat announced Saturday the establishment of “a crisis cell for the benefit of members of the Moroccan community established in China, to monitor their situation”. Dozens of students from the Kingdom are indeed quarantined in the city of Wuhan.
For the time being, the WHO has not declared the disease as a public health emergency of international scope. According to Talisuna, the mortality rate — about 4% — remains low.
“Many of the dead were over 50 years old, or already had other diseases,” he said.
The disease manifests itself in flu-like symptoms that can lead to severe respiratory syndromes.
“The uniqueness of this virus is that it is a new strain that is still being studied,” said Talisuna. “For now, the treatment is to treat the symptoms.”
The WHO has provided a list of qualified laboratories around the world. According to Talisuna, the only laboratory on the continent capable of confirming coronavirus cases is in South Africa.
The international organization has also issued a list of recommendations for populations to protect themselves from the virus. Among these are basic hand and respiratory hygiene, “by adopting healthy eating practices and avoiding close contact with people with symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing or sneezing, if possible”.