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COVID-19: Testing still vital even as vaccines roll out

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A healthcare worker at a testing facility collects samples for the coronavirus at Mimar Sinan State Hospital, Buyukcekmece district in Istanbul, Turkey. © UNDP Turkey/Levent Kulu

Testing will still be a critical tool against COVID-19, even as vaccines are deployed against the disease, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday during his regular briefing on the crisis. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus emphasized how testing has been common among countries which have worked to control the virus. 

“As vaccines are rolled out, testing will continue to play a vital role”, he said

“Initially, health workers, older people and other at-risk groups will be prioritised for vaccination. That will still leave the virus with a lot of room to move, and testing will remain a vital tool for controlling the pandemic.” 

However, Tedros stressed that though vital, testing is only part of the strategy against COVID-19

“Testing is the spotlight that shows where the virus is. Investments in testing must be matched by investments in isolation facilities, clinical care, protecting health workers, contact tracing, cluster investigation and supported quarantine”, he stated. 

More evaluation needed 

Meanwhile, WHO said more information is needed concerning the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University. 

The partners announced this week that clinical trials showed a regimen consisting of one half-dose of the vaccine, followed by a full dose a month later, was more effective than two full doses. 

Dr. Katherine O’Brien, Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO, underlined the need for further evaluation as the data were reported in a press release. 

“I think what we can emphasize, though, is that from what we understand about the press release, there is certainly something interesting that has been observed. But there are many reasons that could underlie the differences that were observed,” she said. 

WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminatha, pointed out that less than 3,000 people were given the lower-dose regimen, according to the press release, all of whom were 55 years old or younger.  

She added that the other group consisted of more than 8,000 people of varying ages, thus making it very hard to compare the two, while overall, their numbers were too small to come to any definitive conclusions. 

“It would be speculation at this point,” Dr. Swaminathan told reporters. 

She said AstraZeneca has informed WHO that it intends to run a full trial of the lower-dose regimen. 

Lessons from Ebola 

Global experience with storage and distribution of the Ebola vaccine could inform delivery of any potential inoculation against COVID-19 once developed, according to WHO. 

“There is demonstrated experience of delivering ultra-cold chain vaccines, even in some of the most difficult and remote areas,” said Dr. O’Brien.  “But that has also taken enormous resources to do that.” 

The WHO official was responding to a journalist’s question concerning the experimental vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, which was recently submitted to authorities in the United States for emergency approval. 

The vaccine, which has shown a more than 90 per cent efficacy rate, requires very cold storage of -70 degrees Celsius or below, prompting concerns about potential distribution in African countries. 

No one vaccine is enough 

“We do have experience in a number of countries, specifically in Africa, being able to deploy a vaccine with that ultra-cold chain requirement”, said Dr. O’Brien, referring to the Merck Ebola vaccine used in outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

“So, as we anticipate the use of the Pfizer vaccine, the intention is certainly to be able to use it along with other vaccines because no one vaccine is going to have adequate supply, nor will any one vaccine necessarily have suitable operational characteristics to meet all of the needs.” 

Dr. O’Brien added that Pfizer has developed a special “shipper” which can maintain the vaccine’s temperature for up to 10 to 15 days. 

Furthermore, the vaccine can be stored at refrigerated temperatures for five days, she continued, while portable freezers that do not run on electricity, and even dry ice, also can be used. 

Innovate for delivery 

As ultra-cold chain logistics are not in place everywhere, including in high-income nations, Dr. O’Brien suggested that countries will have to “innovate” around systems for delivering COVID-19 vaccines that have this requirement.   

One approach could be to use them for immunizing certain segments of the population.   

She cited health professionals as an example, because they work in facilities where immunization would take place and where it would be easier to install the ultra-cold chain freezers. 

Move your body 

Although the pandemic has imposed many restrictions on our lives, there is no excuse to sit on the couch, WHO affirmed on Friday, announcing new guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour, published this week. 

Exercise is essential for physical and mental health throughout life, the agency said, but one in four adults, and four in five adolescents, do not move enough. 

The guidelines recommend between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week for adults, and an average of 60 minutes per day for children and adolescents.

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Health & Wellness

Study Finds That India Might Have Half Of All Covid-19 Deaths Worldwide

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© UNICEF/Vinay

On July 20th, an analysis that was published of India’s “excess mortality estimates from three different data sources from the pandemic’s start through June 2021 … yields an estimate of 4.9 million excess deaths.” As-of July 20th, the total number of deaths that had been officially reported worldwide from Covid-19 was 4,115,391, and only 414,513 (10%) of those were in India. If this new study is correct, then the possibility exists that around half of all deaths that have occurred, thus far, from Covid-19, could be in India, not merely the currently existing 10% that’s shown in the official figures.

This study doesn’t discuss why the actual number of deaths in India from Covid-19 might be around ten times higher than the official Indian figures, but one reason might be a false attribution of India’s greatly increased death-rate from the Covid-19 epidemic not to Covid-19 but to other causes, such as to Covid-19-related illnesses.

The new study is titled “Three New Estimates of India’s All-Cause Excess Mortality during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, and the detailed version of it can be downloaded here.   The study was funded by U.S.-and-allied billionaires and their foundations and corporations, and by governments that those billionaires also might control. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that its methodology is in any way unscientific or otherwise dubious. The study raises serious questions — it does not, in and of itself, answer any. It’s a serious scientific study.

On 1 August 2020, I headlined “India and Brazil Are Now the Global Worst Coronavirus Nations”, and reported that, “India and Brazil have now overtaken the United States as the world’s worst performers at controlling the cononavirus-19 plague. The chart of the numbers of daily new cases in India shows the daily count soaring more than in any other country except Brazil, whereas in the United States, the daily number of new cases has plateaued ever since it hit 72,278 on July 10th, three weeks ago.” At that time, there was great pressure upon India’s Government to stop the alarming acceleration in the daily numbers of people who were officially counted as being patients (active cases) from the disease, and of dying from it. One way that a government can deal with such pressures is by mis-classifying cases, and deaths, from a disease, as being due to other causes, instead.

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Sharp rise in Africa COVID-19 deaths

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A volunteer carer called Trinity is working in a COVID-19 field hospital in Nasrec, Johannesburg. IMF/James Oatway

COVID-19 deaths in Africa have risen sharply in recent weeks, amid the fastest surge in cases the continent has seen so far in the pandemic, the regional office for the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday. 

Fatalities are rising as hospital admissions increase rapidly as countries face shortages in oxygen and intensive care beds. 

COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 40 per cent last week, reaching 6,273, or nearly 1,900 more than the previous week. 

The number is just shy of the 6,294 peak, recorded in January. 

Reaching ‘breaking point’ 

“Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.  

“Under-resourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients.” 

Africa’s case fatality rate, which is the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases, stands at 2.6 per cent compared to the global average of 2.2 per cent.  

Most of the recent deaths, or 83 per cent, occurred in Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia. 

Six million cases 

COVID-19 cases on the continent have risen for eight consecutive weeks, topping six million on Tuesday, WHO reported. 

An additional one million cases were recorded over the past month, marking the shortest time to reach this grim milestone. Comparatively, it took roughly three months for cases to jump from four million to five million. 

Delta, variants drive surge 

The surge is being driven by public fatigue with key health measures and an increased spread of virus variants.  

The Delta variant, the most transmissible, has been detected in 21 countries, while the Alpha and Beta variants have been found in more than 30 countries each. 

Globally, there are four COVID-19 virus variants of concern.  On Wednesday, a WHO emergency committee meeting in Geneva warned of the “strong likelihood” of new and possibly more dangerous variants emerging and spreading. 

Delivering effective treatment

WHO is working with African countries to improve COVID-19 treatment and critical care capacities.  

The UN agency and partners are also delivering oxygen cylinders and other essential medical supplies, and have supported the manufacture and repair of oxygen production plants. 

“The number one priority for African countries is boosting oxygen production to give critically ill patients a fighting chance,” Dr Moeti said. “Effective treatment is the last line of defence against COVID-19 and it must not crumble.” 

The rising caseload comes amid inadequate vaccine supplies. So far, 52 million people in Africa have been inoculated, which is just 1.6 per cent of total COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide.  

Meanwhile, roughly 1.5 per cent of the continent’s population, or 18 million people, are fully vaccinated, compared with over 50 per cent in some high-income countries. 

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Health & Wellness

Child mental health crisis ‘magnified’ by COVID

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A seven-year-old child looks out the window in Istanbul, Turkey, during the COVID-19 emergency. Closure of schools, disruption of health services and suspension of nutrition programmes, due to the coronavirus pandemic, have affected hundreds of millions of children globally. Photo: UNICEF

Half of the world’s children experience violence on and offline in some form every year, with “devastating and life-long consequences” for their mental health, the UN chief warned a symposium on the issue on Thursday.

In a video address to an event organized within the on-going High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), on mental health and wellbeing, he said that mental health services have long suffered from neglect and underinvestment, with “too few children” accessing the services they need.

Services cut

“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the problem. Millions of children are out of school, increasing their vulnerability to violence and mental stress, while services have been cut or moved online.

“As we consider investing in a strong recovery, support for children’s mental wellbeing must be a priority”, said Secretary-General António Guterres.

“I also urge governments to take a preventive approach by addressing the determinants of mental well-being through robust social protection for children and families”, he added, saying that mental health and psychosocial support, together with community-based approaches to care, are “integral to universal health coverage. They cannot be its forgotten part.”

Child’s view paramount

He also urged authorities everywhere to take the views and lived-experiences of children themselves, exposed to increasing on and offline threats, into account when formulating policies and protection strategies.

“Children play an important role in supporting each other’s mental wellbeing. They must be empowered as part of the solution. Let’s work together for sustainable, people-centered, resilient societies, where all children live free from violence and with the highest standards of mental health”, he concluded.

Children contribute

The meeting co-organized with the Permanent Mission of Belgium to the United Nations, and the Group of Friends on mental health and wellbeing, featured a video with contributions from children from 19 countries who took action to support one another.

UN Special Representative on Violence Against Children, Maalla M’jid, highlighted the devastating impact of violence on the mental health of children: “Exposure to violence and other adverse childhood experiences can evoke toxic responses to stress that cause both immediate and long-term physiological and psychological damage.

“In addition to the human cost, the economic cost of mental illness is significant”, she added.

Opportunity for change

The recovery phase of the pandemic, provides an opportunity for countries to invest in this field, she said, emphasizing that “we cannot go back to normal. Because what was ‘normal’ before the pandemic was not good enough, with countries spending on average only 2% of their health budgets on mental health.

“In addition to more investment, we need to change our approach to mental health. Building on the lessons of the pandemic, mental health and child protection services must be recognized as life-saving and essential.

“They must be incorporated into both emergency preparedness and longer-term planning and children must also shape the design, delivery and evaluation of responses”, she added.

The meeting contributed to raising awareness of the impact of violence on the mental health of children, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Examples were shared of effective approaches to supporting children’s mental health from different regions and in different settings; to identify what steps are needed to embed mental health best practices; put child protection and social protection services into action to build back better after the pandemic, while also supporting the Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs by 2030.

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