Globally, more than 47 million COVID-19 cases have now been reported to WHO, and more than 1.2 million people have lost their lives. In Africa, there have been more than 1.7million COVID-19 cases. Although the continent remains the region with the lowest caseload, in just two months there has been an increase of over half a million cases.
The Gambia recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 16, 2020, and has since then registered over 3679 cases. A few weeks ago, The Gambia has seen unprecedented increases in its case numbers, and the situation is likely to get worse as many people are not complying with the public health measures put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Now that the country’s borders are open, the economy is returning to normal across, people are of the view that Covid-19 is over. Fewer and fewer people are adhering to social distancing and many are not using face masks, forgetting this is still mandatory. Therefore, to contain Covid-19 in The Gambia, hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, social distancing, and wearing of masks should remain mandatory.
In addition to the above measures, one of the most pertinent preventive measures is getting people to stop smoking. Available evidence suggests that smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients
In The Gambia, about 16% of the adult population smoke. According to the statistics, the average Gambian male adult aged age 25 to 65 smokes about 10 sticks of cigarettes a day. Smoking is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, strokes, and heart attacks.
In Africa – and particularly in The Gambia, the rate of smoking is alarming particularly among youth. From a health perspective, various tobacco control advocates across the continent have raised warnings of the dangers of tobacco use and its implications for COVID-19. The messages are that smoking compromises the immune system and increases the risk of people contracting COVID-19.
Their calls are not in vain. A systematic review of several studies conducted on coronavirus shows that smokers that contract the virus are even more likely to have more adverse symptoms.
The review, published in the Tobacco Induced Diseases journal, looked at five studies where patients infected with COVID-19 were smokers. All of the studies were
conducted in China, four in Wuhan, and one across provinces in mainland China.
In one study, researchers found that there were higher numbers of smokers among the patients that needed to be placed in the intensive care units of hospitals or needed to be placed on mechanical ventilation. Another study showed that among patients who were most severely affected by COVID-19, about 3% were current smokers and just under 7% were former smokers.
Researchers have demonstrated that smokers were nearly one and half times more likely to have severe COVID-19 symptoms and close to two and a half times more likely to be admitted to an ICU unit, be placed on a ventilation system, or suffer fatal consequences than those patients with COVID-19 who were not smokers.
It’s a known fact that smoking is detrimental to the immune system and that it has an adverse impact on the way the body responds to infections. Research has also shown that smokers are more vulnerable to infectious diseases and various respiratory diseases. Similarly, other studies have also shown that smokers are twice more likely than non-smokers to contract flu and have more severe symptoms.
The challenge is that there is still limited data on the clinical characteristics of the patients. The review does, however, provide useful information and guidance to r health authorities to justify their call for people to stop using tobacco products to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
If we want to save Gambian people during this pandemic, we have no alternative but to help them stop smoking.
Omar Badjie, Non-Communicable Disease/Tobacco Control Programme.