While Covid-19 contagion rates have reached alarming numbers in the US, India, Latin America, the case of Africa has puzzled scientists as the continent has, for the most part, been spared a high number of deaths caused by coronavirus.
Researchers have begun to study the possible explanations behind this mild occurrence of the pandemic on the continent. In an analysis for the journal Science, a group of researchers proposed that early action by authorities could be one of the reasons. “Curfews and school closures were implemented early in Africa compared with other continents,” they wrote.
The authors also mentioned that dealing with diseases such as as Ebola and Lassa fever have been, one way or another, instructive to many African countries. They remain puzzled, nonetheless, as millions of people work in the informal business sector and it has been often difficult to implement strict lock-down measures.
“Strict measures are difficult to maintain over a long period of time,” said Edward Chu, emergency medicine adviser at Doctors Without Borders. If the measures are relaxed, the number of infections could potentially increase.
Another potential hypothesis could be linked to age. On average, the population in Africa is 19 years old. This number is about half the age as that for people in the US. It is known that coronavirus can infect young people as well but so far it has been is the elderly for the most part who have suffered from the most acute Covid-19 cases. This in turn means in the fact that young people are more likely to be asymptomatic and thus the need to test them is less noticeable or urgent.
The lack of testing capacity in a country can also make it difficult to say how much the pandemic has affected a particular population. Rough estimates and calculations have so far been used in places where testing has been limited.
Researchers propose that the environment to which the human body is exposed in Africa could have an effect on the immune system. Exposure to microorganisms and parasites could shape the way the immune system builds resistance against pathogens. This could in turn mean that immune systems in Africa might be better prepared to fight infectious diseases.
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An immunologist and parasitologist at the University Hospital in Bonn is researching the effects caused by certain worms living “in harmony” as parasites in the bodies of millions of people in many African countries.
The harmony, Achim Hörauf believes, is possible because the worms do not trigger a significant immune response. By signaling to the immune system of the host that there is no threat, they avoid triggering the defense mechanisms of the body. This could go hand in hand with what has been observed in many acute cases across the world, where overly aggressive responses from the immune system to Covid-19 has spiraled down into severe complications and even death.