A man wearing a face mask walks outside Yaba Mainland hospital where an Italian citizen - the country's first case of the COVID.
A man wearing a face mask walks outside Yaba Mainland hospital where an Italian citizen - the country's first case of the COVID-19 virus - is being treated, in Lagos, Nigeria, Feb. 28, 2020.

LONDON - Nigerian officials have confirmed a case of coronavirus in the country, the first confirmed case in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is braced for a potential coronavirus pandemic as experts warn health systems on the continent could be overwhelmed.  However, experts say the apparent delay in the virus reaching Africa has given health officials precious time to prepare.
   
According to Nigerian officials, the confirmed case is an Italian national who works in Nigeria and returned to Lagos from Milan, Italy earlier this week.  He is now being treated in a Lagos hospital, and is said to have no serious symptoms.

The case has raised fears of a potential coronavirus outbreak in one of Africa’s most densely populated cities.

Single cases of  the coronavirus have been detected in Egypt and Algeria, but so far, there has been no large-scale outbreak on the continent. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned Thursday that no country can assume it is safe from the virus.  

"This virus doesn't respect borders. It does not distinguish between races or ethnicities," he said. "It has no regard for a country's GDP or level of development. The point is not only to prevent cases arriving on your shores. The point is what you do when you have cases.”

The apparent delay in any African outbreak has given the continent time to prepare. Until this month, only two laboratories in the  whole of Africa were able to test for the coronavirus. The World Health Organization says now more than half of sub-Saharan countries are equipped to diagnose the virus.  

"It's not as extensive as we need it to be, and the testing that's going on in countries isn't as complete as we'd like it to be," Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo is from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told VOA. "But the fact that we've been able to stand this up in relatively short amounts of time, I think represents progress.”

A man wearing face mask walks at the Yaba Mainland hospital where an Italian citizen who entered Nigeria on Tuesday from Milan on a business trip, the first case of the COVID-19 virus is being treated in Lagos Nigeria, Feb. 28, 2020.

It’s feared that an undetected outbreak could rapidly escalate into a health crisis. Around 80 percent of people with the coronavirus have only mild symptoms, meaning the true prevalence is likely underreported. Most fatalities have occurred in those with underlying health problems.

But a pandemic in Africa would overwhelm medical facilities, says  Dr. Nathalie MacDermott of King's College London.

"It's an issue when it comes to managing other medical problems. So, that means that people with heart disease and things aren't necessarily able to visit the hospital or to get an appointment," she said. "And subsequently, we could see increased mortality from other medical problems, simply because they can't access the health system.”

Experts say many African nations must improve disease surveillance and operations to trace the spread of infection. They also warn that in the event of a global pandemic, the international community must be ready to step in and help countries with weaker health systems.

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