The World Health Organization has warned that an additional 236,000 people in Europe could die from COVID-19 by December 1, sounding the alarm over rising infections and stagnant vaccine rates across the continent.
Countries across the region have seen infection rates rise as the highly transmissible Delta variant holds up, especially among the unvaccinated.
Poorer countries, especially in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, have been hardest hit and the number of deaths is also increasing.
“Last week there was an 11 percent increase in deaths in the region – a reliable forecast expects 236,000 deaths in Europe by December 1, WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge said Monday.
Europe has so far recorded about 1.3 million COVID-19 deaths and 64 million confirmed cases. Of the 53 WHO member states in Europe, 33 have registered an incidence of more than 10 percent in the past two weeks, Kluge said. Most are in poorer countries.
High transmission rates across the continent were “deeply worrisome, especially in light of low vaccination coverage in priority populations in a number of countries”.
Kluge said that Delta variant was partly to blame, along with an “exaggerated easing” of restrictions and measures and an increase in summer travel.
While about half of people in the WHO European region have been fully vaccinated, uptake in the region has slowed down.
“It’s down 14 percent in the past six weeks, impacted by a lack of vaccine access in some countries and a lack of vaccine acceptance in others,” Kluge said, urging countries to “increase production.” , sharing doses and access”.
Only 6 percent of people in low- and lower-middle-income countries in Europe are fully vaccinated, and some countries have managed to vaccinate only one in ten health workers.
Kluge stressed that as public health and social measures were relaxed in many places, “public acceptance of vaccinations is crucial”.
“Vaccine skepticism and scientific denial are holding us back from stabilizing this crisis. It serves no purpose and is not good for anyone.”
‘Catastrophic’ disruption of education
The warning comes as WHO and UNICEF earlier on Monday urged European countries to make teachers a vaccination priority group so schools can remain open during the pandemic.
As schools reopen after the summer break, the agencies said it was “vital that classroom learning continues uninterrupted,” despite the spread of the Delta variant.
“This is paramount for children’s education, mental health and social skills, and for schools to equip our children to be happy and productive members of society,” Kluge said.
“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 with underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe COVID-19.
They 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.
Meanwhile, Kluge said a third dose of booster injection of the COVID-19 vaccination is a way to keep the most vulnerable safe and “not a luxury”.
The WHO said earlier this month that data failed to point to the need for booster shots, while replenishing people already fully vaccinated would widen the gap between rich and low-income countries.
“A third dose of vaccine is not a luxury booster” [that is] taken from someone who is still waiting for a first shot. It’s basically a way to keep the most vulnerable safe,” Kluge said.
“We have to be a little bit careful with the booster shot because there isn’t enough evidence yet,” he said.