Beirut: Cases of Covid-19 have increased alarmingly over the past month in Syria’s rebel-controlled northern region of Idlib, local authorities said on Monday.
Although cases of the virus had stabilised earlier this year, sometimes numbering fewer than 100 per day, local officials told AFP contaminations have begun soaring again since mid-August.
On September 6, more than 1,500 new cases were recorded in one day across Idlib region, which borders Turkey and is home to more than three million people. "We are witnessing a sudden and severe wave," said Hossam Qara Mohammed, the doctor in charge of battling the pandemic for the ad-hoc local administration.
Mohammed, who works for the health directorate in the enclave dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) the group, said the Delta variant accounted for the vast majority of new infections.
The spike in Covid numbers came roughly two weeks after Syrian refugees in Turkey were granted one-off permission to visit relatives in the Idlib enclave for the Eid-ul-Azha Muslim holiday a month ago.
Turkey holds considerable sway over the region and the factions that control it, including HTS. "The health system here has reached breaking point," Mohammed said, adding that all beds in designated Covid-19 medical centres were occupied.
A total of 877 deaths have been reported in the Idlib region since the start of the pandemic, but data collection and vaccination campaigns are hindered by a dire humanitarian situation and ongoing conflict.
Regime and allied forces have sporadically continued to shell targets in Idlib despite an internationally-brokered ceasefire that took effect last year. In the latest instance of government attacks against medical facilities, a health centre in the Idlib region’s village of Marayam was destroyed by shelling on September 8.
The UN’s top humanitarian official told the Security Council last month that only 58,000 people had been vaccinated in Idlib and called for campaigns to be ramped up.Vaccines are effective enough at preventing severe cases of Covid-19 that there is no current need for the general population to be given third doses, according to a report in The Lancet published on Monday.
Some countries have started offering extra doses over fears about the much more contagious Delta variant, causing the World Health Organisation to call for a moratorium on third jabs amid concerns about vaccine supplies to poorer nations, where millions have yet to receive their first jab.
The new report by scientists, including from the WHO, concluded that even with the threat of Delta, "booster doses for the general population are not appropriate at this stage in the pandemic".
The authors, who reviewed observational studies and clinical trials, found that vaccines remain highly effective against severe symptoms of Covid-19, across all the main virus variants including Delta, although they had lower success in preventing asymptomatic cases of the disease.
"Taken as a whole, the currently available studies do not provide credible evidence of substantially declining protection against severe disease, which is the primary goal of vaccination," said lead author Ana-Maria Henao-Restrepo, of the WHO. She said vaccine doses should be prioritised to people around the world still waiting for a jab.
"If vaccines are deployed where they would do the most good, they could hasten the end of the pandemic by inhibiting further evolution of variants," she added. Countries like France have started distributing third jabs to the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, while Israel has gone further, offering children 12 and older a third dose five months after receiving a second jab.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called on countries to avoid giving out extra Covid jabs until the end of the year as the UN health agency urges all nations to vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations by the end of this month, and at least 40 percent by the end of this year.
The Lancet study concluded that the current variants had not developed sufficiently to escape the immune response provided by vaccines currently in use. The authors argue that if new virus mutations do emerge that are able to evade this response, it would be better to deliver specially modified vaccine boosters aimed at the newer variants, rather than a third dose of an existing vaccine.
Commenting on the study Azra Ghani, Chair in Infectious Disease Epidemiology, at Imperial College London, described it as a "very thorough review" of current research. But she said that while the reduction in efficacy of vaccines against variants like Delta might be small, when considered across a population it could still lead to "a substantial increase" in people needing hospitalisation.
"Even in the most developed countries, these small differences can put a severe strain on the health system," she said in a statement to the Science Media Centre, adding there was no "one size fits all" approach to booster vaccines.
Meanwhile, all children aged between 12 and 15 years should be offered but not required to take vaccinations against coronavirus, the chief medical officers who advise the UK’s four governments, said on Monday.
Britain has been one of the country’s hardest hit by Covid-19, recording more than 134,000 deaths of those catching the disease. Despite a succesful vaccination programme, case rates remain stubbornly high due to the emergence of the Delta variant, and officials are anxious about them rising further now that schools have returned after the summer break.
Vaccinating children has become a thorny issue, despite other countries pushing ahead with jabs. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises UK health departments on immunisation, currently says the "margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children at this time".
But the chief medical officers (CMO) of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the vaccines should be made available, after taking into account wider issues such as education and mental health.
The CMOs said vaccinating 12-15 year-olds "will help reduce transmission of Covid-19 in schools", with around three million children potentially eligible for the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
"Covid-19 is a disease which can be very effectively transmitted by mass spreading events, especially with the Delta variant," they said. "Having a significant proportion of pupils vaccinated is likely to reduce the probability of such events which are likely to cause local outbreaks in, or associated with, schools.
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