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Dr. Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: A top official at the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned the “weak health systems” in the region may not be adequate to deal with the spread of COVID-19, and has called for critical support to the Middle East to deal with the deadly virus.

There have been more than 86,000 cases with coronavirus infections globally. The virus has killed at least 2,900 people worldwide, the vast majority in China. In the Middle East, the number has risen in the past two days to more than 730 infections. About 600 of those cases are in Iran. The latest death toll in Iran is 43.

In the region, inadequate medical infrastructure risks a potential outbreak if governments don’t get vital support, Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, told Gulf News in an interview.

“Our region is one that is plagued by emergencies. Almost two-thirds of the Region’s 22 countries are currently directly or indirectly facing complex emergencies. Weak health systems further increase the vulnerabilities of populations and the risk of spread of disease,” he explained.

“As such, the fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect early, and rapidly respond to the COVID-19. Country planning and mobilisation of resources, including human resources, are critically needed to support these countries,” said Dr Al Mandhari, an Omani former academic who was elected to the regional WHO top job in 2018. His Cairo office covers a wide region, from Morocco to Afghansitan, inducing the region’s worst-hit country, Iran.

He said the WHO is performing risk assessment for the outbreak, and updating it based on the progress of the outbreak in order to identify vulnerable countries in the Middle East, and prioritise and coordinate dispatching the needed support.

He called on countries in the region to get their priorities right in order in respond to the challenge. “There are three priorities: First, all countries must prioritise protecting health workers. Second, communities must be engaged to protect people who are most at risk, particularly the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. And third, countries that are the most vulnerable must be protected by [countries that have the best capacity] doing their utmost to contain the outbreak,” he explained.

He doubted the numbers announced by regional governments are being downplayed. He said the information about suspected and confirmed cases in the region “are shared with WHO in accordance with the International Health Regulations. Timely sharing of information with WHO is critical to inform recommendations and advice”.

On Thursday, the WHO warned that no country should assume it will not be affected by coronavirus. “This virus has pandemic potential,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO said bluntly.

However, Dr Al Mandhari said he was “encouraged” by the recent decline in cases in China. His main worry is the increasing transmission of the virus outside mainland China. “We are calling on all countries to invest urgently in preparedness for the arrival of cases, and to prioritise the protection of health workers, individuals at risk and to communicate better the risks of transmission to their people.”

He urged the public in the Middle East “to obtain the latest information on COVID-19 from key sources such as Ministries of Health and WHO, and follow and promote the recommended basic preventive and protective measures available on the WHO official websites.”

Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the WHO regional director said in coordination with the organisation, countries in the Middle East are working on the development and implementation of “national preparedness and response plans to activate intensified measures and actions and related Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). These national measures include:
• Activation of multi-sectorial coordination mechanisms;
In countries where no confirmed cases have been reported, “efforts are being accelerated to ensure that laboratory capacities are scaled up, isolation wards are established, health workers are updated on case definitions and diagnosis and treatment procedures, and the general public is informed on how to protect themselves,” he said.
• Active surveillance and screening at points of entry;
• Training health care providers on contact tracing and case definition for suspected and confirmed cases;
• Case management and the Infection, Prevention and Control measures; distributing personal protective equipment to health facilities, including at points of entry, for managing suspected and confirmed cases;
• Activating and alerting rapid response teams;
• Distributing Information Education and Communications materials to raise public awareness and counter rumours and misinformation.
Dr Al Mandhari said the WHO recommends that to protect against COVID-19 and reduce general risk of its transmission, individuals should:
• Avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections;
• Wash hands frequently, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment;
• Practice good coughing and sneezing hygiene;
• Avoid unprotected contact with farm or wild animals.