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Omicron infections less severe but more research called for


Omicron was first detected by South African scientists and has so far been reported in at least 89 countries. [Courtesy]

As Omicron variant of Covid-19 continues to spread across the world, scientists are racing to study the heavily mutated coronavirus and gauge its risks. Like other countries, Kenya has reported less severe disease from the variant.

The Ministry of Health has reported fewer hospital and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admissions of those infected.

At its onset, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the heavily mutated Omicron variant as likely to spread internationally and pose a very high risk of infection surges that could have "severe consequences" in some places.

The variant was first detected by South African scientists and has so far been reported in at least 89 countries. The severity of illness it causes remains unclear.

The Head of Preventive and Promotive Health at the Directorate of Medical Services, Dr Andrew Mulwa, said those testing positive for the variant have mild to moderate illness or infection with fewer admissions and need of ICU care.

Dr Clayton Onyango, a virologist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), attributed the less hospitalisation to a population that has already been infected, hence an already built up immunity.

Omicron appears to result in mild illness that can resemble the common cold. Cough, fatigue or tiredness. It’s less clear, however, whether the types of symptoms and their severity differ for those who are unvaccinated,” Onyango said.

He vouched for more research, adding "as at now, the time it takes for an infected person to develop symptoms after exposure maybe shorter for omicron than for previous variants."

In an update on Covid-19 cases in the country and response measures, the distribution of positive cases was high in the age bracket of 20-29 and 30-39.

"A majority of the youthful population has high immunity and they can access healthcare easily compared to the old," says Dr Mulwa.

“We have witnessed mild to moderate infections among young people with the severity of the diseases dominant in the elderly population.”

Mulwa could not directly link the fewer hospital admissions to the youthful age group being infected. He, however, warned the country to be watchful on Omicron mutation, which can end up being more lethal.


Head of Preventive and Promotive Health at the Directorate of Medical Services, Dr Andrew Mulwa. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Compared to other variants before, Mulwa said the country has an advantage of a huge population being vaccinated, “which gives individuals a fighting chance against the disease.”

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Omicron variant likely will spread more easily, and how easily it spreads compared to Delta remains unknown. CDC expects that anyone with Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.

It notes more data is needed to know if Omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.

“Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalisations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant,” CDC said.

Scientists are working to determine how well existing vaccines work. Based on the changed genetic make-up of Omicron, some vaccines are likely to remain effective while others may be less effective.

CDC recommends that everyone five years and older protect themselves from Covid-19 by getting fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, health officials in Kisumu have warned against a spike in infections, with the county recording a 42 per cent infection rate with 3.3 per cent fatalities.

There are 34 people admitted with Covid-9, with other 848 under home-based care. County Director of Public Health and Sanitation Fredrick Oluoch attributed the rise to the festive season.

As of December 26, 9,579,456 people had been vaccinated countrywide. Of these, 5,639,933 were partially vaccinated while those fully vaccinated were 3,939,523.

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