Africa is the second most populous continent with an estimated 17.2% of the world’s population. Yet it has only accounted for 5% of the global cases of COVID-19 — and only 3% of the deaths.
As this recent New York Times story says: “The coronavirus was expected to devastate the continent, but higher-income and better-prepared countries appear to have fared far worse.”
Stanford Health Policy master’s student Tofunmi Omiye wants to understand why so few Africans have been hit by the coronavirus compared to the rest of the world. He recently presented this conundrum at Stanford’s 8th Annual Global Health Research Convening.
“The absence of exponential growth and the low mortality rates contrary to that experienced in other continents — and contrary to the projections for Africa by various agencies, including the World Health Organization — has been a puzzle to many,” said Omiye, who received his medical degree in his native Nigeria. He is also a research assistant in the Ross Lab in the vascular surgery division at Stanford Medicine, where he focuses on using machine learning tools to improve health-care outcomes.
“The onset of the pandemic was later, the rate of rise has been slower, and the severity of illness and case fatality rates have been lower in comparison to other continents,” reads the abstract poster he presented at the convening. “In addition, contrary to what had been documented in other continents, the occurrence of renal complications in these patients also appeared to be much lower.”
Omiye and his colleagues collected publicly available data on COVID-19 cases, mortality, and coronavirus tests in Africa and other parts of the world through August 2020. The African data was augmented with information from the African Centers for Disease Control and official data from various African nations. They also used data on environmental variables — such as humidity and temperatures — as well as the human developmental index.
“This report documents the striking differences between the continents and within the continent of Africa itself and then attempts to explain the reasons for these differences,” reads the abstract. “It is hoped that the information presented in this review will help policymakers in the ﬁght to contain the pandemic, particularly within Africa with its resource-constrained health care systems.”
They found that metrics differences such as age, the prevalence of comorbid disease, Vitamin D status, and sun exposure played a role. For example, the African continent has one of the youngest populations in the world — with a median age of 18 — compared to Europe, with a median age of 42 years.
This correlates to the prevalence of comorbid diseases like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease across the different continents, which is much lower on the continent compared to other regions. They found this to have been instrumental in Africa mitigating the pandemic from a mortality and hospitalization perspective.
In addition, the continent’s experience with previous infectious diseases and outbreaks made many of the countries respond faster with a united lockdown policy at the pandemic’s onset.
At Stanford, Omiye is focused on broadly utilizing technology to improve health outcomes for all regardless of background or gender. He was just named a Threshold Venture Fellow, a School of Engineering program awarded to a dozen Stanford master’s students interested in entrepreneurial ventures. The fellows meet with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, lawyers and venture capitalists and complete a personal project. Omiye is exploring the potential of specific health ventures as a catalytic approach to solving some of the toughest health-care problems around access and cost in underserved communities.