Vaccine inequity across Middle East hampering efforts to contain Delta variant

Author(s): Jesslyn Thay, Source: EMRO , Date: 06 August 2021

The Middle East region is being hit hard by the emerging Delta variant of the coronavirus. Vaccination rates are low across the region, due to a number of factors, but cases of the new variant and hospitalisations are increasing, much to the concern of EMRO (WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region).

Increase in cases across the region

EMRO reports that the region has experienced a ‘substantial increase’ in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths over the past month. Reports indicate that a surge in infections are being experienced in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Tunisia and Libya.

However, experts have expressed concerns around the under reporting of cases in countries like Yemen – where cases numbers are just above 7000 and only 1374 reported deaths from coronavirus.

Currently the Delta variant of the coronavirus has been reported in 15 out of the 22 countries of the region. The Delta variant is fast becoming the dominant strain of the virus in several of these countries.

According to the American Society for Microbiology the strain is more transmissible than the original Alpha variant, with infected persons having a viral load almost 1000 times higher than other variants.

Cases numbers climbing and vaccine inequality

EMRO has reported over 12.3 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 233 088 deaths across the region.  Vaccination rates remain low due to availability of the vaccine but also people’s hesitancy to accept the coronavirus pandemic and receive vaccination.

Higher income countries in the region lead the way for coronavirus vaccination rates, in Saudi Arabia 57.3% of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

This is in contrast to Yemen were only 1% of the population, just 298,161 people, have received one dose of the vaccine. (figures from COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University)

EMRO says that the inaction of higher income countries to donate vaccines to poorer countries in the region, together with the increasing transmissibility of new variants, increased social mixing, poor enforcement and adherence to public health and social measures, will allow COVID-19 to continue spreading, infecting and killing people in the region and beyond. 

“The rapid spread of the Delta variant across the Eastern Mediterranean Region and all other WHO regions is a major cause for concern. The number of new cases and deaths has increased in recent weeks. Most of the new cases and hospitalized patients are unvaccinated people.  We are now in the fourth wave of COVID-19 across the Region. By applying effective use of all public and social health measures we will make sure that this is the last wave,” said Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. 

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