DAKAR, July 29 (Reuters) - Idrissa Lo rushed back to Senegal from the United States when family members started falling sick with COVID-19 and dying.
On Wednesday, he mourned a fifth family member lost to the virus - one of nearly 150 Senegalese to die this month as a third wave sweeps through the capital Dakar, leaving its hospitals nearly overrun.
"The one I lost two hours ago is my really close cousin. He was young, he was like 40 years old," said Lo, a U.S.-based transport worker, standing in the sun-baked yard of the hospital in Dakar's Yoff neighbourhood.
"There is something going on - this is a real crisis."
Senegal, which until this month had recorded fewer than 44,000 cases and 1,166 deaths, has registered more than 15,000 cases and 139 deaths since the start of July, according to health ministry figures.
After comfortably weathering the first two waves of the virus, health services were now stretched dangerously thin, said Dr. Khardiata Diallo, head of infectious disease at Fann hospital in Dakar.
"Patients, particularly young ones, are arriving in respiratory distress," Diallo said, her voice cracking with exhaustion. "We've never had this number of cases, deaths and severe cases. Frankly, this third wave threatens to drown us."
Many infections outside clinics were going undiagnosed, while post mortems were not routine, she said. "The situation is much more serious. What we see here is only the tip of the iceberg."
In Dakar, the current epicentre of the epidemic in Senegal, every bed with supplemental oxygen for patients in severe respiratory distress was taken, she said.
Diallo said the hospital was not short on oxygen, although demand was so high that delivery workers said some of them were working night shifts to keep up.
Like many African countries facing a third wave of infections, Senegal is more vulnerable because so few people are vaccinated. It has administered fewer than 1 million doses to a population of around 16 million people, according to government data.
Overall, cases in Africa have exploded in recent weeks, hitting a fresh record of nearly 50,000 new daily infections in early July.
The Senegalese health ministry has vowed to ramp up vaccinations and this week welcomed fresh deliveries from China's Sinopharm and Johnson & Johnson as well as a shipment of AstraZeneca doses under the COVAX global distribution programme.
The West African nation plans to build a plant to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines. Production is expected to begin later this year. The facility will produce 25 million doses per month by the end of 2022. read more
At Yoff hospital, hundreds of people queued for a vaccine on Wednesday. Many had arrived before dawn and expected to spend most of the day in line.
"We're seeing 13-year-olds infected, people in their twenties dying," said 58-year-old Ndeye Dia, who had been queuing for a shot since 6 a.m. "It's total panic now."
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