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COVID-19 Surveillance in Africa

On February 14, 2020, the first cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) were identified on the African continent. More than 35,000 cases have been identified and more than 1,500 have died from the disease to date. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC)—a specialized technical public health institution of the African Union—has been working to support African Union Member States to rapidly detect and respond to COVID-19.

Verifying Facts for Informed Decision-making

The Africa CDC has five Regional Collaborating Centres (RCC) that support activities in the central, eastern, northern, western and southern regions of the continent. The southern region has been the focus of Ciheb’s Chika Ukenedo’s work over the past two months. Chika, a member of the African Volunteers Health Corp, was selected to be a part of Africa CDC’s COVID-19 response. She serves as the regional event-based surveillance analyst responsible for scanning and verifying media reports with AU Member States across the region’s 10 countries. “As surveillance analysts, we provide up-to-date case counts to inform response efforts for the continental group,” she said. “Our work helps support coordination and decision making for informed action.”

From the southern RCC’s office in Lusaka, Zambia, Ukenedo scans the Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources (EIOS) platform—a public health intelligence system created to provide information during disease outbreaks—and other online sources for reports of new COVID-19 cases, deaths, tests, and recoveries. She confirms accuracy of the reports  through focal point persons in each country.

Once confirmed, Ukenedo reports her results to headquarters twice daily, which are, in turn, uploaded to the COVID-19 dashboard (pictured above). The data is helping to describe how the outbreak is spreading, and identifies where more action is needed to halt the spread.

Debunking Misinformation

In addition to her assignment with the Africa CDC, Ukenedo, who is Nigerian, continues to work remotely with the risk communication group at the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), where she has been stationed for the past four years.  At NCDC one of her primary tasks is to debunk rumors about disease outbreaks.

She explains that disease misinformation can not only be counterproductive but deadly. She describes how online rumors during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa caused harm. One of the more pernicious rumors was the claim that salt consumed with hot water prevented Ebola. This rumor led to overconsumption of salt, which caused several deaths and numerous hospitalizations. “The lesson that we learned from Ebola in Nigeria,” said Ukenedo, “is that rumors can be very damaging and we don’t want to let them repeat again.” 

More recently, the monkeypox outbreak in Nigeria also resulted in many false rumors. Ukenedo was part of a group at the NCDC that responded to the situation and recently published a research paper describing how sensationalized reports about the disease misinformed the public. The paper also identified how to avoid such occurrences in the future.

With respect to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Ukenedo indicates that many African countries responded quickly by closing their borders once the outbreak began. Despite these efforts, she observes the disease continuing to spread quickly. She believes it is likely to be a problem for some time. Ukenedo is thankful that more testing is now being done and hopes that a well-documented, effective treatment becomes available soon.

 

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