A recent study published in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Pediatrics medical journal shows that children in sub-Saharan Africa are dying of Covid-19 at a much higher rate than children in Europe and the US.
The study was led by Professor Jean B. Nachega, an infectious diseases epidemiologist associated with South Africa’s own Stellenbosch University and the University of Pittsburgh in the US.
Nachega, who has played a vital role in the fight against HIV/Aids and TB on the continent, said that although the study looked at data from earlier in the pandemic, the situation has not 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.
The study examined outcomes in 469 children who ranged in age from 3 months to 19 years and were hospitalised in one of six countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. A quarter of the children had pre-existing conditions. Eighteen had confirmed or suspected multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a severe complication of Covid-19 where different body parts become inflamed.
The study, which included investigators across all six African countries that provided data, found that 34.6% of hospitalised children were admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) or required supplemental oxygen, and 21.2% of those admitted to the ICU required invasive mechanical ventilation. During the time frame studied, 39 – more than 8% – of the children died. This compares with rates between 1% and 5% that have been reported in high-income countries.
Nachega, who is also the Research Committee chairperson of the African Forum for Research and Education in Health (AFREhealth), said that the high morbidity and mortality associated with hospitalised children with Covid-19 in their study challenge the current understanding of Covid-19 as a mild disease in this population.
“If 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 genuine possibility of dying,” he said.
Nachega also commended the recent progress on increasing the Covid-19 vaccine supply in Africa, but emphasised that those vaccines are not yet widely available.
“Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy is a global issue, and Africa is no exception. Evidence-based public health campaigns must address concerns in accessible, trustworthy ways so that there is high vaccine uptake as soon as it is available,” he said.
Nachega said that only 5% of the African population has been fully vaccinated.