An increase in Covid-19 transmission rates across Europe over the last two weeks, combined with low levels of vaccination in some countries, is “deeply worrying”, the World Health Organization has said.
The WHO said it feared another 236,000 Covid-19 deaths in Europe by 1 December.
“Last week, there was an 11% increase in the number of deaths in the region – one reliable projection is expecting 236,000 deaths in Europe, by December 1,” WHO Europe director Hans Kluge told reporters.
He added that “the stagnation in vaccine uptake in our region is of serious concern”.
Europe has registered around 1.3 million Covid deaths to date.
Of the WHO Europe’s 53 member states, 33 have registered an incidence rate greater than 10% in the past two weeks, Dr Kluge said.
He attributed the higher transmission to the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, an “exaggerated easing” of restrictions and measures, and a surge in summer travel.
As of 26 August, Ireland’s 14-day incidence rate was 530.7 per 100,000.
While around half of people in Europe are fully vaccinated, vaccination uptake in the region has slowed, Dr Kluge also noted.
“In the past six weeks, it has fallen by 14%, influenced by a lack of access to vaccines in some countries and a lack of vaccine acceptance in others.”
Only 6% of people in lower and lower-middle income countries in Europe are fully vaccinated, and some countries have only managed to vaccinate one in 10 health professionals.
“The stagnation in vaccine uptake in our region is of serious concern,” Dr Kluge said, urging countries to “increase production, share doses, and improve access”.
He said that a third-dose booster shot of the Covid-19 vaccination is a way to keep the most vulnerable safe and “not a luxury”.
The WHO said earlier this month data did not indicate a need for booster shots, while topping up already fully vaccinated people would further widen a vaccine-availability gap between rich and lower-income countries.
“A third dose of vaccine is not a luxury booster (that is) taken away from someone who is still waiting for a first jab. It’s basically a way to keep the most vulnerable safe,” Dr Kluge said.
“We have to be a little bit careful with the booster shot, because there is not yet enough evidence,” he said.
“But more and more studies show that a third dose keeps vulnerable people safe, and this is done by more and more countries in our region,” he said.
Dr Kluge urged European countries with excess vaccines to share them with other countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Africa.
Teachers and school staff should be among the groups prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations so that schools in Europe and Central Asia can stay open, the WHO and Unicef said.
Measures to ensure that schools can stay open throughout the pandemic “include offering teachers and other school staff the Covid-19 vaccine as part of target population groups in national vaccination plans,” the UN agencies wrote in a statement.
The recommendation, already made by a group of WHO experts in November 2020 before the vaccination roll-out, should be done “while ensuring vaccination of vulnerable populations,” the statement said.
As schools reopen after the summer holidays, the agencies said it was “vital that classroom-based learning continue uninterrupted,” despite the spread of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.
“This is of paramount importance for children’s education, mental health and social skills, for schools to help equip our children to be happy and productive members of society,” Dr Kluge said in the statement.
“The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history,” he added.
The agencies urged countries to vaccinate children over the age of 12 who have underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe Covid-19 disease.
It also recalled the importance of measures to improve the school environment during the pandemic, including better ventilation, smaller class sizes, social distancing and regular Covid testing for children and staff.
According to the WHO’s recommendations published in early July, testing of children in risk groups who display Covid-19 symptoms should be a priority.
Courtesy of rte.ie