The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Monday that another 236,000 people could die from COVID-19 in Europe by December 1, sounding the alarm over rising infections and a stagnating vaccination rate on the continent.
Countries across the region have seen infection rates tick up as the highly transmissible delta variant takes hold, particularly among the unvaccinated. Poorer nations, especially in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, have been hardest hit, and deaths are mounting as well.
"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 Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge said Monday. Europe has registered around 1.3 million COVID-19 deaths to date.
Of WHO Europe's 53 member states, 33 have registered an incidence rate greater than 10% in the past two weeks, Kluge said. Most are in poorer countries. High transmission rates across the continent were "deeply worrying, particularly in the light of low vaccination uptake in priority populations in a number of countries."
Kluge said the delta variant was partly to blame, along with an "exaggerated easing" of restrictions and measures and a surge in summer travel. While around half of people in WHO's Europe region are fully vaccinated, uptake in the region has slowed.
"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," Kluge said, urging countries to "increase production, share doses and improve access."
"Vaccine skepticism and science denial is holding us back from stabilizing this crisis. It serves no purpose, and is good for no one," he said.
The warning comes as the WHO and UNICEF urged European countries earlier Monday to make teachers a priority group for vaccinations so that schools can stay open throughout the pandemic. As schools reopen after the summer holidays, the agencies said it was "vital that classroom-based learning continue uninterrupted" despite the spread of the delta variant.
"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," Kluge said. "The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history."
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. 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-19 testing for children and staff.
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