The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that health workers are now threatened by the COVID-19 as more than 10,000 of them got infected across 40 countries.
It said the trend shows a sign of the challenges medical staff on the frontlines of the outbreak face.
There are now more than 750 000 cases of COVID-19, with over 15 000 deaths as the virus appears to be gathering pace in Africa.
Some countries are approaching a critical number of infections that can place stress on health systems, according to the WHO. South Africa is now among the worst-hit countries in the world.
“The growth we are seeing in COVID-19 cases in Africa is placing an ever-greater strain on health services across the continent,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
She adds that “This has very real consequences for the individuals who work in them, and there is no more sobering example of this than the rising number of health worker infections.”
So far, about 10% of all cases globally are among health workers, though there is a wide range between individual countries.
In Africa, information on health worker infections is still limited, but preliminary data finds that they make up more than 5% of cases in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa alone, and in four of these, health workers make up more than 10% of all infections, the WHO said.
What are the problems?
The global health body said inadequate access to personal protective equipment or weak infection prevention and control measures raise the risk of health worker infection.
Surging global demand for protective equipment as well as global restrictions on travel have triggered supply shortages, impacting Africa.
In some instances though health workers are also exposed to patients who do not show signs of the disease and are in the health facilities for a range of other services.
Risks may also arise when health personnel are repurposed for COVID-19 response without adequate briefing, or because of heavy workloads which result in fatigue, burnout and possibly not fully applying the standard operating procedures, the WHO said.
In many African countries infection prevention and control measures aimed at preventing infections in health facilities are still not fully implemented.
The WHO said its assessment at clinics and hospitals across the continent showed that only 16% of the nearly 30 000 facilities surveyed had assessment scores above 75%.
Many health centres were found to lack the infrastructure necessary to implement key infection prevention measures, or to prevent overcrowding. Only 7.8% (2213) had isolation capacities and just a third had the capacity to triage patients.
“One infection among health workers is one too many,” said Dr Moeti adding that “Doctors, nurses and other health professionals are our mothers, brothers and sisters. They are helping to save lives endangered by COVID-19. We must make sure that they have the equipment, skills and information they need to keep themselves, their patients and colleagues safe.”
The WHO has been working closely with health ministries to reduce health worker infections since the outbreak began.
The Organization has trained more than 50 000 health workers in Africa in infection prevention and control, with plans to train over 200 000 more, as well as providing guidance documents and guidelines on best care practices and the most up-to-date treatment regimes.