Some residents of Old Town, Mombasa, were recently captured on social media complaining that they had been asked to be tested for Covid-19. While this news was received with mixed reactions across the country, testing remains critical in the management of the deadly pandemic.
Since December 2019 when Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has emphasised the importance of testing.
Like with all other infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, testing provides useful information that can be used to make critical decisions. You can only fight an enemy whom you know well. Likewise, countries, Kenya included, can only fight the virus after getting results of testing.
It is only through testing that government can make decisions on how to manage the virus, including whether to impose lockdowns, or curfews and even when to end them. Finding, isolating, testing and treating all cases are crucial in breaking the chain of transmission.
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By yesterday, Kenya had conducted tests on 102,956 samples out of which 3,094 had turned out positive. On a positive note, Kenya had recorded 1,048 recoveries. These numbers are very important in the planning of various responses going forward. They inform policy makers and health experts on the next plausible steps in tacking the pandemic.
We cannot give up or relent on collecting these figures and encouraging more Kenyans to turn out for mass testing. Countries that have trashed mass testing for the virus have lived to regret as they helplessly watched numbers skyrocket to unimaginable levels. This is the message we should stress to all stakeholders including ordinary Kenyans seeking for easing of measures imposed to curb more transmissions.
When dealing with a virus that spreads very fast such as the new coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2), speed becomes extremely critical in testing, and three things are crucial in the process: Tracking down cases with symptoms, identifying their household cluster and tracing people they have contacted and isolating them until they can no longer spread the virus.
As expected in the early stages of the pandemic, when clusters are few and far between, most people usually do not comprehend the intensity of the threat and would readily resist government orders that appear restrictive to them.
At this time, testing, contact tracing and isolating people with symptoms is crucial. But as the pandemic becomes rampant, it is crucial to switch the policy to intensive testing to not only protect health workers but also the entire population.
Citizens therefore have to cooperate with health officials at all times for the country to get this very critical data in the management of the pandemic.
The notion that the testing process is uncomfortable is misleading, and there is need for all Kenyans to cooperate with the health officials whenever they are called upon to do so for purposes of mass testing. The discomfort during the few seconds of sample taking cannot be compared to the risk of spreading the deadly virus, including to one’s loved ones especially the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
But mass testing is not just about identifying, following up and isolating cases. Information is power, and information provided about the virus through testing helps in putting in place strategies to manage the virus spread.
According to WHO, mass testing helps protect health workers and assess the achievements registered in fighting the pandemic.
Testing will provide us with evidence about variations by regions, counties, cities and towns, and helps understand how the virus is affecting people of different genders and ages across the country.
Virus such as coronavirus keeps on mutating, and as such data from mass testing provides virologists with information to monitor the nature of the virus and determine if it has undergone any mutations. The data can also show whether measures such as social distancing, hand washing and staying at home, put in place to control the pandemic, are working.
But nothing makes a stronger case for mass testing than the fact that many cases of the disease in Kenya are asymptomatic - people who show no symptoms of Covid-19 but are capable of spreading it.
Without testing such people, it would be difficult to tell who they may be, leaving them to continue spreading the deadly disease.
Even as we talk about mass testing, we must also prioritise some categories such as those working in industries such as transport, supermarkets and government workers, and people returning from overseas or leaving Kenya for work outside the country.
There have been a popular assumption that children are less likely to be affected by Covid-19. This is not true, and children also need to be target for mass testing.
Testing only is not enough. Testing must be complemented by other measures such as physical distancing, proper wearing of masks, hand washing and generally observing all government directives.
Mr Kiptoo is CEO, Kenya Medical Training College.