Containing that spread is the new challenge. Africa has less than 800 confirmed cases and Latin America under 2,000, but an early response is crucial as fragile health systems could be quickly overwhelmed.
With such limited resources, experts say identifying cases, tracing and testing are key.
“We have seen how the virus actually accelerates that after a certain … tipping point. So the best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst and prepare today,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.
“We have different and significant barriers to health care in Africa, which could be a real challenge,” said Dr. Ngozi Erondu, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House Center for Global Health Security.
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the isolation wards or large number of health care workers to respond to a surge of COVID-19 patients, she said.
Liberia and Burkina Faso only have a few ventilators for their millions of people.
Dr. Bernard Olayo, founder of the Kenya-based Center for Public Health and Development, said most countries in Africa can’t afford ventilators. Even if ventilators were provided by other countries, it’s not sufficient because of the lack of qualified people to use them.
“It’s complex, it’s very very complex because the patients that end up on ventilators require round the clock care by larger teams,” he said.
Many patients could do well with just oxygen, he said, but close to half of health facilities in African countries don’t have reliable oxygen supplies. Oxygen concentrators can be used, but given the frequent electricity cuts in many countries, oxygen generators and pressure cylinders are needed because they can function while power is out.
The WHO regional Africa director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said the lack of ICU facilities and ventilators is one of the biggest challenges facing the continent.
Virus continuing its global spread
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.