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Monday, September 21, 2020

Covid-19: The case for mass testing in The Gambia as number of cases surge

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By Dr Ismaila Ceesay

To help contain the novel coronavirus, it is imperative for The Gambia to conduct mass community testing as cases surge in our country. The decision of the Ministry of Health to embark on a mass sample collection exercise in the coastal town of Bakau, following some local transmission cases, has been lauded as the appropriate measure. As at Saturday 2 May, 2020, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in The Gambia had risen to 17, an increase of 5 from the previous day’s figure.

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Following the report of the first local transmission in the densely populated town of Bakau, it is critical to test, trace, track and isolate the infected until they can no longer spread the disease. This can only be achieved through mass testing. Testing provides us the window into the pandemic as it helps us understand the pandemic and its spreading pattern. This knowledge helps inform our interventions, containment and mitigation strategies. Mass testing also enables the government to identify and effectively target hotspots and vulnerable areas. Therefore, we must ramp up our efforts to effectively communicate with citizens to ensure that they are fully aware of the benefits of mass testing. Unfortunately, we have seen resistance to testing within certain communities and religious groups in other parts of the world.

The Gambia reported its first confirmed Covid-19 case on 17 March. With the lowest number of infections (17) in the Ecowas region, the country risks becoming a destination for Covid-19 refugees. Experts are yet to establish the reason for the relatively low number of cases in Africa and The Gambia in particular. However, this can be attributed to a lack of case detection, due to the limited number of samples collected so far – or perhaps the virus simply has not yet spread fully. Be that as it may, it is important for health officials about to embark on mass community testing exercise in Bakau and, subsequently, other locations across the country, to be able to effectively communicate with the population, ensure strict adherence to social distancing guidelines and quickly identify and protect the vulnerable – particularly the elderly and persons with underlying or existing health conditions. In the meantime, members of the general public are encouraged to continue complying with government measures and regulations, observe WHO guidelines and importantly, cooperate and respect health officials as they go about testing people in various communities.

Dr Ismaila Ceesay, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of The Gambia and founder of Citizens Alliance political party.

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