Sub-Saharan Africa children show higher Covid-19 death rate than elsewhere

Infants younger than a year in Africa have nearly five times (4.89) the risk of dying than adolescents aged 15 to 19 years after contracting Covid-19a recent study published in the journal, American Medical Association, suggests.

The study, published this week, also found that children in sub-Saharan Africa who are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 are dying at a rate far greater than those in the United States and Europe — highlighting the critical need to fast-track Covid-19 vaccinations and therapeutic interventions in Africa.  

During the period under review – March to December 2020 – more than 8% of the children died. In comparison, high-income countries had mortality rates of between 1% and 5%. 

Children of all ages with comorbidities, including high blood pressure, chronic lung diseases, haematological disorders and cancer, were also at higher risk of dying. The study, conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, examined the outcome of Covid-19 in 469 children aged between three months and 19 years in hospitals.

“A quarter of the children had pre-existing conditions. Eighteen had confirmed or suspected multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious complication of Covid-19 where different parts of the body become inflamed,” found the study. 

Professor Jean Nachega, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and the study leader, said although it looked at data from earlier in the pandemic, the situation hadn’t changed much for the children of Africa: “If anything, it is expected to be worsening with the global emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant … Vaccines are not yet widely available, and paediatric intensive care is not easily accessible.”

Most African countries did not reach the World Health Organisation’s target of vaccinating 40% of their populations against Covid-19 by the end of December. At the beginning of 2022, only about 9% of eligible people on the continent were fully vaccinated.

Nachega questioned the understanding of Covid-19 as “a mild disease” when faced with a high morbidity and death rate associated with children with the virus in hospitals. 

Worsening infections occur when a child “has a comorbidity, is very young and is in a place where there are limited or no specialised doctors, facilities, or equipment for paediatric intensive care, then that child faces a very real possibility of dying”, Nachega noted.

The study concludes that Covid-19 vaccinations and therapeutic interventions are needed for young populations in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where the morbidity and mortality rates are high. 

Africa hopes to become self-reliant on vaccines after the launch of a state-of-the-art manufacturing campus on Wednesday, a first for the continent.

“Africa stands ready to enter a new age of medical science,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said, speaking at the official launch of NantSA’s manufacturing campus at Brackengate, Cape Town. NantSA is a division of US-based multinational conglomerate NantWorks.

“Today is a demonstration on how we move forward to become self-reliant as a continent,” Ramaphosa added.

The event also saw the launch of the Africa’s Access to Advanced Healthcare Coalition. NantSA and the coalition want to accelerate the production of pharmaceuticals, biologics and vaccines on the continent.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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