Nigeria and five other African countries now have the capacity to diagnose coronavirus, although there are no confirmed cases in the continent, the World Health Organisation has said.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the health organisation said Africa has the capacity to diagnose the disease if it is eventually exported to the continent.
It said the WHO African region now has six laboratories where the disease can be diagnosed and that upgrading the laboratories to diagnose the new coronavirus is part of the ongoing efforts by the agency to help African countries prepare against the outbreak.
The six laboratories are located in Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Given the population in Africa, it would have been expected that the region would have more laboratories with the capacity to diagnose the disease.
However, the number African countries with laboratories of high- tech diagnostic capacities are still relatively low. The region has been struggling with health security and containing infectious diseases.
The availability of six laboratories to test can still be considered as a plus as the region had only two laboratories with the capacity to diagnose the disease as at the time it broke out.
The organisation said until early last week, there were only two laboratories – one in Senegal and the other in South Africa – which had the reagents needed to test samples.
“The two laboratories have been working as referral laboratories for countries around the region.”
The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said a new virus is always a challenge and most laboratories in Africa lack the key material they need to perform tests on a novel pathogen.
Ms Moeti said the agency will also be sending kits to 29 laboratories in the region.
“This will ensure they have diagnostic capacity for novel coronavirus and can support testing samples from neighbouring countries, ” she said.
WHO said it is working with countries to rapidly scale-up diagnostic capacity for 2019-nCoV. The agency has also made a call to countries across the world to heighten disease surveillance and preparation as there is no respite from the spread of the disease.
This became necessary with the rapid spread of the disease within China and outside the country.
In the last week of January, the WHO had declared the ongoing coronavirus outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern. This was due to the high rate of transmission, human to human transmission of the disease and lack of substantial information on the pattern of the disease.
By Wednesday, 25 countries had reported confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including China, where 24,363 people had contracted the virus, or over 99 per cent of all cases.
About 191 cases have been reported in other countries.
Though no African country have reported any confirmed case, there have been scares and suspected cases.
WHO has, however, identified 13 African countries – Nigeria inclusive – as top priority countries which need to be at alert with their surveillance and preparedness, in case of eventualities.
This is due to their direct links or high volume of travel to (and from) China.
Ms Moeti said it is crucial that countries in the region can detect and treat severe cases early, preventing a widespread outbreak, which could overwhelm fragile health systems.
“WHO is dispatching protective equipment for health workers, as well as thermometers and other essential supplies for screening and handling suspect cases at airports and other points of entry.
“While the top priority countries are WHO’s first areas of focus, the organization will support all countries in the region in preparing for novel coronavirus,” she said.
WHO recommends that to protect against the novel virus, people should practice good hand and respiratory hygiene and safe food preparation practices.
These include washing hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing, avoiding close contact with anyone with flu-like symptoms, and cooking food properly, especially meat.