Europe and Central Asia again at epicentre of the pandemic, says WHO

Europe and Central Asia again at epicentre of the pandemic, says WHO
Credit: EU

Every single country in Europe and Central Asia is facing a real threat of COVID-19 resurgence or already fighting it, according to a statement today by WHO.

“The current pace of transmission across the 53 countries of the European Region (incl. Central Asia), is of grave concern,” said WHO/Europe Regional Director, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, at a press conference on Thursday.  “COVID-19 cases are once again approaching record levels – with the more transmissible Delta variant continuing to dominate transmission across Europe and Central Asia.”

He presented some alarming figures. Last week, with nearly 1.8 million new cases and 24,000 new deaths reported, Europe and Central Asia saw a 6% increase and 12% increase, respectively, as compared to the previous week. Over the past four weeks, Europe has seen a greater than 55% increase in new COVID-19 cases.

Europe and Central Asia accounted for 59% of all cases globally and 48% of reported deaths. Cumulatively, there are now more reported cases,78 million, in the European Region, than in South-East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western Pacific, and Africa combined.

“We are, once again, at the epicentre,” he summarized. While the trends are increasing across all age groups, 75% of the fatal cases are in persons aged 65 years and above.

According to one reliable projection, the European Region could see another half a million COVID-19 deaths by the first of February next year. Most countries in the region will face high to extreme stress on hospital beds at some point during the same period.

He gave two main reasons for the increase in COVID-19 cases. First, insufficient vaccination coverage and second, the relaxation of public health and social measures, such as wearing masks, washing hands and keeping social distance. “We have to do it all, both vaccination and carrying out protective measures.”

Reliable projections show that if 95% universal mask use was achieved in Europe and Central Asia, up to 188,000 lives could be saved from the half a million lives that might be lost before February 2022. Testing, contact tracing and ventilation of indoor crowded spaces continue to be essential to avoid a lockdown which would hurt the economy and people’ livelihoods.

“Preventive measures, when applied correctly and consistently - allow us to go on with our lives, not the opposite,” Dr Kluge said. “Preventive measures do not deprive people of their freedom, they ensure it. In other words, the best way to avoid lockdowns – which is an absolute last resort – is to apply such measures and keep COVID-19 transmission low.”

“Vaccines are our most powerful asset if used alongside other tools.” 

Countries of Europe and Central Asia are at various stages of vaccination roll-out. On average, only 47% of people have completed a full vaccination series. While eight countries have now exceeded 70% coverage, in two, the rate remains below 10%. Where vaccine uptake is low, in many countries in the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, hospital admission rates are high.

Most people hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 today, are not fully vaccinated. “It’s imperative that authorities invest all efforts to accelerate the pace of vaccination roll-out.”

“We need to make sure countries with low vaccine coverage among priority groups increase their coverage. Authorities are encouraged to offer an additional dose to moderately and severely immunocompromised people, 1-3 months after they complete the primary vaccination series and to consider offering an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccines to all people over the age of 60.”

The latter recommendation is already followed in some EU member states, such as Belgium and Sweden, for people over the age of 65.

“We are at another critical point of pandemic resurgence. Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic – where we were one year ago. The difference today is that we know more and we can do more – we have more tools and means to mitigate and reduce the damage to our communities and society.”

In the EU, the latest figures from ECDCs vaccine tracker (4 November) show a high average vaccination rate with ca 76 % of the adult population (18+) fully vaccinated and an even higher rate among the most elderly (80+), where the rate is 89 %. Despite this, there is surge in COVID-19 in several countries.

Asked by The Brussels Times about the need of a third vaccine shot (booster) for the whole population, he did not deviate much from his position in September. He recalled the huge differences in vaccination rates by country and accepted the roll-out of booster vaccination if it is not at the expense of vulnerable groups that have not yet been fully vaccinated. There is also a need to vaccinate pupils in schools from the age of 12.

The Brussels Times

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