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Lack of basic health tools put Africans at risk of virus

Public pools are now open in Palmdale. (305916)
Public pools are now open in Palmdale. Credit: City of Palmdale

A UCLA study has found that Africans are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to lack of basic public health tools.

The study, published this month in Epidemiology & Infection, found that 1.4 billion Africans do not have access to soap and water or the ability to physically distance or isolate at home, essential strategies to curbing the spread of the virus.

“Hundreds of millions of people across Africa simply lack means for implementing non-pharmacological public health interventions to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer of the UCLA Fielding School of

Public Health. “These populations urgently need to be prioritized for vaccination to prevent disease and to contain the global pandemic.”

COVID-19 has infected 7.3 million people across Africa, and killed 185,505. Globally, 210 million cases and 4.4 million deaths have been reported in more than 200 countries.

Brewer led the international team, which included colleagues at University of Bristol, as well as researchers from China, Ethiopia, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK and U.S.

“SARS-CoV-2 spreads primarily by respiratory droplets generated by coughing, sneezing or talking,” Brewer said. “Until effective vaccines are universally available, NPIs are the principal means by which governments prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in their populations.”

The World Health Organization also recommends physical distancing, masks in public and hand washing. Studies show physical distancing and masks reduce transmission of the virus by 80 percent.

Across the 54 countries in Africa, about 718 million people live in households with more than six individuals at home, 283 million people live in homes where more than three people sleep in a single room, 890 million Africans lack on-site water and 700 million lack in-home soap and washing facilities.

“Crucially, the findings raise the urgency of getting vaccines rapidly to all countries in Africa, which lag far behind, and for addressing the underlying conditions of poverty that place populations at increased risk from respiratory virus outbreaks and pandemics,” said Dr. Jody Heymann, UCLA professor of public health, public policy and medicine.

“The pandemic has exposed structural inequalities in almost all spheres, from health to the economy, security to social protection,” added study co-author Yehualashet Mekonen. “Girls in the continent have particularly felt its impact with far-reaching consequences on their life trajectories including higher risks for early marriage, drop out from school and reduced access to reproductive health services.”

Co-author Dr. David Gordon said, “Unfortunately, impoverished living conditions mean that it is almost impossible for many people in African countries to follow public health advice and protect themselves from the virus. European and North American countries need to stop hoarding millions of doses of vaccines that they will never be able to use and make them available to people in Africa.”