West African health officials race to vaccinate amid spikes

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FILE—In this Wednesday, July 28, 2021 file photo, a health worker administers a dose of Janssen COVID-19 vaccine by Johnson & Johnson in the Medina neighborhood in Dakar, Senegal. Thousands of new coronavirus cases have been reported in West Africa in recent weeks amid low vaccination rates and the spread of the delta variant. Officials say cases have risen sharply in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

A resurgence of coronavirus cases in West Africa is hitting the region hard, inundating cemeteries where funeral numbers are rising and hospitals where beds are becoming scarce.

Thousands of new COVID-19 cases have been reported in the region in the past few weeks amid low vaccination rates and the spread of the delta variant, with some countries seeing their highest numbers since the pandemic began.

Residents who were previously wary of getting shots as conspiracy theories spread online are now lining up by the thousands from Liberia to Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal.

“At the beginning, there were people who gave false information, but when people noticed an increase of contaminations and deaths, people understood that only vaccination can save them,” said Bamba Fall, mayor of the Medina municipality in Senegal’s capital, Dakar.

Shortages and delays have caused Africa’s 54 countries to fall far behind wealthier nations in their COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. Some 82 million doses have arrived on the continent to date, though that is just 10 percent of the number needed to vaccinate 30 percent of its population by the end of 2021, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa.

But more shipments are finally rolling in, steering the continent of 1.3 billion people into an “encouraging phase after a bleak June,” Moeti said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel on vaccine deliveries to Africa, but it must not be snuffed out again.”

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with more than 210 million people, next month will receive more than 29 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines purchased by the government through the African Union. It’s also expecting 4 million doses of Moderna and almost 700,000 AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX program and from donations by the United States and the United Kingdom, according to Health Minister Osagie Ehanire.

Meanwhile, confirmed cases in Senegal, which had been ahead in the fight against the virus, leapt from only 380 on July 10 to 1,700 on July 18, the highest number since the pandemic began, according to the Ministry of Health.

Senegal is employing more community-focused campaigns as residents see people close to them — including those young and healthy — succumbing to the disease.

Elsewhere, Liberia received 96,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX initiative, but the first consignment of about 27,000 had only a month lifespan and expired as people were reluctant to get the shots, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francis Kateh said.

In Ghana, President Nana Akufo-Addo raised the alarm Sunday as new confirmed infections tripled, stretching hospitals and ICU wards to their limit.

Ghana “cannot afford to allow the recklessness of a few to endanger the lives of the majority of persons in the country,” he said, announcing masks are now mandatory in public places.

Ghana is committed to vaccinating 20 million people, representing its entire adult population, by the end of this year, he said.

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