COVID-19 has killed more than 7 million people since 2020

While COVID-19 has disappeared from front pages, the virus is still claiming thousands of lives each month. The WHO warns against complacency and urges continuation of vaccination

January 13, 2024 by Peoples Health Dispatch
A trader is vaccinated in Mogadishu. Photo: AMISOM Public Information, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The close of 2023 marked a grim milestone: over 7 million people had lost their lives to COVID-19 by then. Though the cases and deaths were lower than during the peak years of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned against complacency.

In December 2023, 10,000 people died from COVID-19, with over half in the United States. Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, has been warning about not underestimating COVID-19 before the year ended. While the pandemic might seem to be in the past, there are still serious risks.

“We need people to test, to get treated, to enter into clinical care pathways to make sure they have access to antivirals to prevent severe disease and notably to get vaccinated if you are in a high-risk group,” Van Kerkhove said during WHO’s beginning-of-the-year press conference.

Despite the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant causing fresh infections, the WHO urges vaccination, especially for high-risk groups like older people, pregnant women, and those with underlying conditions. Michael Ryan, WHO’s Health Emergencies Executive Director, highlighted, “The vaccines may not stop you from being infected, but they significantly reduce your chance of being hospitalized or dying.”

Unfortunately, immunization programs for both COVID-19 and influenza seem to have hit a wall. Even in countries that struggled to obtain enough vaccine doses due to hoarding and high prices in the past, vaccines are expiring. Uganda — where less than 45% of the population had received at least one vaccine dose by November 2023 — must discard millions of doses obtained through a World Bank loan.

To prevent such wastage, governments and health authorities play a crucial role. “We continue to call on governments to maintain surveillance and sequencing, and to ensure access to affordable and reliable tests, treatments and vaccines for their populations,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Despite COVID-19 seemingly becoming a part of daily life, not unlike influenza, lessons from the pandemic point to the importance of effective government responses and international mechanisms for sharing information and medical materials. In that regard, the discussions on the Pandemic Treaty and the upcoming World Health Assembly in May this year may signify a different benchmark than the one reached at the end of 2023 — although hopes for that remain low.

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