Even though Omicron is milder, it can overwhelm health services, says WHO

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People are underestimating the Covid-19 coronavirus – and the Omicron variant – at their peril, World Health Organization (WHO) officials have said.

And they’ve expressed concern that the Omicron variant is being dismissed by some as ‘lightweight’, while it’s spreading at an ‘unprecedented’ rate.

Data from South Africa is still in its infancy and countries need to act now in the face of a “big wave of cases” of the faster-spreading mutation, said WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan.

His warning was echoed by the organization’s chief executive, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said efforts needed to be made to sting the unvaccinated as well as continuing measures such as mask-wearing and washing clothes. hands.

It came after Dr Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that she agreed with a new study by the South African Health Council. medical research suggesting that Omicron may be 29% less severe than the first wave of infection. which swept the country.

She said “we don’t have all the answers”, but the clinical picture so far is that people are mostly suffering from mild illness due to Omicron.

But the WHO has warned against placing too much faith in early data.

Dr Tedros told a press briefing: ‘We are concerned that people will dismiss Omicron as being mild.

“We have surely learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.

“Even if Omicron causes less severe disease, the number of cases could again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

He told an online briefing: “Omicron is spreading at a rate we’ve never seen with any previous variant.

“Even if Omicron causes less severe disease, the number of cases could again overwhelm an unprepared healthcare system.”

Dr Ryan said that while scientific surveillance of the variant is ongoing, “we need to be prepared for what is likely to happen, which is a large wave of cases, which may or may not be more or less serious but which will themselves generate pressure on the health system”.

The executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program has warned that “health systems are weaker now than they were a year ago, in reality”, as multiple waves of Covid- 19 swept countries.

He added: “Unfortunately, sometimes you can get up after the first punch, but it’s very difficult to get up after the second and third, and that’s where the difficulty lies.”

He said WHO leaders will be “the happiest people in the world” to be able to say in two or three weeks that “it’s a much milder disease, everything is fine”.

But he cautioned against assumptions, as he said: “That’s not how this virus has behaved so far, that’s not our experience through the three waves of this pandemic.

“So I think the idea is to act now in the real world while we collect the data to understand exactly what this virus is capable of.”

No one who is offered a booster should feel guilty about accepting their third dose, said Dr Ryan when asked about accelerating its UK rollout.

He said countries can protect their own citizens while helping to address global vaccine inequities.

He said: “There are governments out there, like the UK, who are doing their best to manage the priorities of their own people and very strongly supporting international efforts to create equity in the distribution of vaccines. .”

Dr Tedros said the priority must remain “vaccinating the unvaccinated, even in countries that have better access to vaccines”, and said shots should be combined with other health measures.

Countries can “remove heat from transmission by doing simple things” like avoiding crowded spaces and providing good ventilation, Dr Ryan said.

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