A sudden, sharp rise in coronavirus cases in many parts of Africa could amount to a continental third wave, the World Health Organization warned on Thursday, a portent of deeper trouble for a continent whose immunization drives have been crippled by shortfalls in funding and vaccine doses.

The W.H.O., an arm of the United Nations, said test positivity had risen in 14 African countries over the last seven days, with eight reporting a surge of over 30 percent in new cases. Infections are steadily climbing in South Africa, where four of nine provinces are battling a third wave. There has also been a sharp increase in cases in Uganda, with hospitals overwhelmed with Covid patients and the authorities mulling a lockdown.

The W.H.O. attributed the rise to loose compliance with social restrictions, and increasing travel along with the arrival of the winter season in southern Africa.

Experts also believe the spread of new coronavirus variants — like those first identified in Britain, India and South Africa — is contributing to the surge and the ensuing rise in deaths. While Africa has reported less than 3 percent of global coronavirus cases, the W.H.O. said the continent accounted for 3.7 percent of total deaths. And that is almost certainly a severe undercount, since in the vast majority of countries on the African continent, most deaths are never formally registered.

The rising cases, the W.H.O. warned, could overwhelm already creaky health care systems that are struggling with limited intensive care beds, oxygen and ventilators. To forestall a full-blown crisis, Dr. Moeti urged “countries that have reached a significant vaccination coverage to release doses and keep the most vulnerable Africans out of critical care.”



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