JOHANNESBURG/NAIROBI, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Africa needs to speed up vaccinations six-fold if it hopes to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, and people on the continent should not become complacent because of reports Omicron is milder than previous variants, the WHO's Africa director said on Thursday.
Only 11% of Africans are fully vaccinated, lagging most of the rest of the world. The World Health Organization's Matshidiso Moeti said around 6 million Africans were being vaccinated per week, but "that number needs to increase exponentially to 36 million a week to put countries on the path to beating this pandemic."
She said she was worried that reports that the Omicron variant was milder than earlier strains of the virus would undermine vaccine programmes.
"I think we are already seeing signs that people's understanding is that this virus is spreading very fast but it is not very lethal and therefore some people will feel 'why, why bother?'" she said.
Health experts say that although Omicron can be milder than other coronavirus variants, it can still cause serious illness and death. Vaccines sharply reduce those risks, saving lives and protecting healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.
The African Union has launched a campaign urging young Africans in particular to come forward for vaccination. Other organisations such as the WHO and UNICEF are also working to make vaccination easier for Africans.
In South Africa, where a huge wave of Omicron cases has subsided after peaking late last year, the government has scrapped isolation rules for people who test positive but display no symptoms. Moeti said it was understandable that countries would experiment with measures. read more
"I think it is very understandable that in seeking to reach balance, countries are working on normalising the response while managing the risk," she said, adding that countries needed to monitor very closely the impact of relaxing restrictions.
At a separate briefing, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr John Nkengasong cautioned countries against going too far in relaxing restrictions because of a perception that COVID-19 was now endemic.
"With (an) 11% positivity rate and the severity of what we are seeing now, that is the waves that keep coming and going ... it doesn't meet the definition of endemicity," he said.
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