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WHO urges Asia-Pacific countries to brace selves for COVID-19 surge due to Omicron

Asia-Pacific countries must brace for a new surge in the number of Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases due to the Omicron variant, which emerged last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday, December 3, 2021.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Photo credit: AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI / Getty Images

With more gatherings and an increase in people’s movements during the holiday season, people need to stay vigilant, said Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific.

Initial data showed that Omicron, first detected in South Africa and recently declared a variant of concern, may be more transmissible than other Coronavirus variants, Kasai said.

“Border control can delay the virus coming in and buy time, but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases,’’ he told an online press briefing from the regional headquarters in Manila.

“The positive news in all this is that none of the information we have currently about Omicron suggests that we need to change the direction of our response,’’ he added.

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Kasai urged countries to use their experience in dealing with the Delta variant as a guide on how to cope with future surges in a more sustainable way.

He stressed the need for countries to vaccinate more people, boost their health-care capacities to ensure that hospital beds are available for severe cases and strengthen surveillance to detect cases in preparation for a surge.

People must also continue implementing public health and safety measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing which were known to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

“We can adapt, so that COVID-19 has less impact on our lives in 2022, and we can start to regain and hopefully retain a sense of normality,’’ Kasai said.

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Though little is known about the Omicron variant at present, it is surprising scientists in South Africa by increasing infection even in young children.

“There is an increase in hospital admissions of children in the age group up to 5 years,’’ scientist Michelle Groome of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases NICD said.

This distinguishes the fourth wave of infections that begun in South Africa from earlier such phases, she said.

But it is still too early to draw scientifically sound conclusions from the data available.

In the greater area around the capital Pretoria alone, there have been about 100 admissions of young children in the past two weeks.

“We have seen an increase in hospital admissions of under-5s,“ Ramphelane Morewane of the South African Department of Health confirmed on Friday.

In all these young patients, the parents had not been vaccinated, said NICD medical officer Waasila Jassat.

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She did not rule out that young children were now more susceptible to the virus than before.

Based on still very early findings, Omicron is extremely contagious, but causes only relatively mild illness in vaccinated persons.

Malaysia’s Health Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin confirmed the first case of the Omicron Coronavirus variant in the country.

The minister said the case involved a South African student who had returned to Malaysia on Nov. 19, after visiting family in her homeland.

Announcing that travellers from high risk countries would have to wear a digital tracker while quarantining, Khairy asked Malaysians to accept the possibility of Omicron cases in the country and to be measured in their comments and reaction.

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