WHO sends 43 health experts to South Africa as COVID-19 pandemic worsens

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The South African COVID-19 response will soon be bolstered by a surge team of health experts from the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO will be deploying 43 experts from various fields to support the COVID-19 outbreak response management. The first 17 health expects will arrive today and include key expertise in epidemiology, surveillance, case management, infection, prevention and control, procurement, as well as community mobilization and health education. Among them is Dr David Heymann, a seasoned infectious disease epidemiologist and public health expert, who was at one-time Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment at WHO. He headed the response to the SARS epidemic in 2003, working with his team to mediate international efforts to halt the pandemic.

These deployments have emanated from continued discussions between the Minister of Health, Hon Dr Zweli Mkhize, and WHO global and regional leadership. With South Africa now among the top five of the world’s most affected countries, it is critical to strengthen its COVID-19 response.

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“At this time when the COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa is spreading rapidly, it is important that we work together to intensify our fight against the virus,” said Dr Owen Kaluwa, WHO Representative for South Africa. “For this reason, WHO is ramping up support to complement national and provincial efforts to scale-up the response. Our collective efforts are necessary to identify cases, isolate and provide care, follow up contacts and fully implement physical distancing and other key public health measures. In this way we will minimize the spread and impact of COVID19.”

WHO will be primarily responsible for funding the international surge team with South Africa largely being responsible for providing administrative resources for smooth initiation and integration of the partnership.

The surge team will be jointly led by Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa and Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. They will work virtually from Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo and Geneva, Switzerland respectively to support the experts on the ground.

“Dr Moeti and Dr Ryan have become familiar and trusted figures in the fight against COVID-19,” said Minister of Health Hon Dr Zweli Mkhize. “They have been supporting and complementing our national efforts and we have had very fruitful and honest discussions with them. WHO will greatly bolster our efforts as we have seen how effective their interventions have been in countries like China, Spain, Italy, Mauritius and other countries that have been through what we are facing now. I would also like to pay tribute to the Director General of WHO Dr Tedros Adhanhom Ghebreyesus, who has been steadfast in his leadership during a defining global crisis. We look forward to welcoming the WHO team and integrating them to buttress our COVID-19 response.”

The delegation will be required to complete an initial period of quarantine and testing before being cleared for deployment in the country. They will be initiated into the current national health efforts and informed on how the National Department of Health is supporting provincial COVID-19 programmes. Then they will be deployed in the national department and the following provinces: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, Kwazulu Natal and Mpumalanga.

“These provinces have been identified as the ones needing the most urgent support where the first team can make the most impact. As the remaining experts are deployed by WHO, all provinces in the country will benefit from their presence,” said Dr Sandile Buthelezi, the Director General of Health.

The surge team is expected to contribute to national efforts in key response areas including surveillance and streamlining of epidemiological systems and WHO global COVID-19 response guidelines, improved case management, leading to a reduced hospital burden and increased community buy-in resulting in greater compliance to public health measures.

“WHO Regional Office for Africa has made supporting South Africa a key priority,” said Dr Moeti. “I believe our joint efforts with South African health experts will help flatten the curve and save lives. We are in this together. Our solidarity which spans the globe is a model partnership for an effective response. United we will defeat COVID-19.”

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