“WHAT? Ebola? Oh my goodness, could this be true? With the conditions of our hospitals guys! May God please have mercy and intervene. Eish, God help; not ebola, better cholera!”
This is one of the many messages that flooded social network Facebook on Thursday last week after strong rumours that a suspected ebola patient had been transferred from Parirenyatwa Hospital to Wilkins Infectious Disease Hospital in Harare.
What started as a normal hot summer day turned into a tense afternoon with phones humming as people asked each other whether the rumours were true on another social platform, WhatsApp. Many even went on to call their relatives in rural areas advising them to avoid shaking hands with anyone, warning them the deadly ebola was now in Harare and could go viral.
When online news agencies reported that Wilkins Hospital had been closed and patients admitted there transferred to other hospitals, the fears got even worse as this was seen as confirmation.
Questions and suggestions flooded social networks, with some asking what had happened to Health minister David Parirenyatwa’s ebola testing kits, while others said they were going to stock up on groceries so that if the scare was confirmed, they would not leave their homes or entertain visitors, especially those who travelled in public transport.
Despite government’s attempts to downplay the public’s rising fears over an ebola outbreak, Zimbabweans appear justified in their apprehension as events in the past week, including reports of medical personnel literally running away from a suspected ebola patient, suggest ill-preparedness on the part of government in dealing with the disease.
Last week a yet-to-be-identified patient, who is a Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) student at Harare Polytechnic, was transferred from Parirenyatwa Hospital to Wilkins after showing ebola-like symptoms, among them fever, high temperature, vomiting and bleeding.
Although she reportedly only tested positive to malaria, as of Tuesday she was still detained at Wilkins while the authorities waited for results of her blood specimen sent to South Africa for screening last Thursday.
The hospital was still closed on Wednesday and officials said they would open as soon as the patient is discharged, that is if she tests negative of ebola which notoriously kills up to 70% of those infected.
The student is among the estimated 150 foreign students from West Africa enrolled at the Harare Polytechnic and the incident is the third official ebola scare in the country within the past two months.
With the country’s porous border posts, it would not be difficult for ebola patients to enter the country. This week South Africa media reports claimed West Africans are fleeing their countries in a bid to escape the virus, with some headed to South Africa, thus placing neighbouring Zimbabwe at considerable risk.
In addition, the media said the “undocumented migrants” would enter the country through the porous border at Beitbridge in northern Limpopo province — an entry point that has no measures such as temperature radars in place to check visitors who could be carriers.
In June, police in Beitbridge — the busiest inland port of entry in sub-Saharan Africa which handles about 25 000 travellers a day during the festive season — intercepted 37 illegal Ethiopian immigrants as they made their way to South Africa along the Limpopo River.
Other Zimbabwean borders such as Nyamapanda and Chirundu have seen an increase in immigrants from Pakistan, DRC, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Zimbabwe’s capacity or preparedness to handle ebola cases has been cast into doubt with insiders telling the Zimbabwe Independent this week there was panic among Parirenyatwa hospital staff before the student was transferred to Wilkins.
The insider said: “The hospital staff panicked over the suspected ebola case as they were scared for their safety.
A senior doctor, City of Harare health director Prosper Chonzi, had to be called in.
This just shows that even though they might have the aprons, masks and surgical gloves, medical staff need intensive training on how to handle ebola cases. Moreover, it takes too long for results to come back from South Africa. Government needs to invest in technology to enable testing locally.”
Chonzi on Wednesday said the results of the ebola virus tests on the polytechnic student had returned negative, adding there was need for more training of health workers.
Chonzi confirmed he was called in to calm the situation at Parirenyatwa following panic related to the suspected ebola case: “Yes, I was called in,” he said.
“There are so many health workers at Parirenyatwa hospital and some are not yet comfortable with handling suspected ebola patients.
There is still need for more training and more co-ordination because there are so many staffers at the hospital. On Friday (today), we will be training them (Parirenyatwa health workers) again and there will also be training of even private practitioners and casualty areas of private hospitals. At any health institution, there should be an isolated area that will not make a patient feel abandoned.”
Chonzi said City of Harare workers, from the ambulance crew to nurses and general hands, had received training and are now prepared to deal with any outbreak.
“All provinces have received some form of training. They are the ones who are going to train others at lower levels. There is going to be training of so many people in different areas and this also includes journalists and traditional leaders. Everyone in Zimbabwe should be ready. I think we have been given enough time; so we should be prepared. We don’t want to lose lives,” he said.
The fears by health workers were also confirmed by a statement released last week by Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association in which they said they were deeply concerned by the working conditions for doctors.
“Government must urgently come up with a comprehensive response to the possibility of an ebola outbreak that shall protect doctors, other health workers and their families from the deadly disease,” wrote the doctors to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and the chairperson of the Health Services Board.
The doctors have given government 14 days to meet their demands which include an upward review of their basic salary from US$282 per month to a minimum of US$1 200 per month exclusive of allowances, a payment of at least US$1,45 per hour as on-call allowances and that government stops charging all doctors residing in government-provided accommodation the current “exorbitant” rates of US$250.
The concerns are not without justification. Even more advanced countries such as the United States, where there are rigorous anti-epidemic measures in place, have seen health officials contracting ebola from patients they would have treated.
Doctors are in short supply in Zimbabwe and should they strike, this would have disastrous consequences on the nation’s ability to deal with ebola cases. Adding to concerns over low staff morale is the country’s health infrastructure that has deteriorated over the years.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which this week called the ebola outbreak “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times”, on Wednesday put the death toll at 4 450 since March.
Ebola spreads from person to person through contact with organs and bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, urine and other secretions of infected people. Symptoms include weakness, fever, aches, diarrhoea, vomiting, bleeding and stomach pain.
In Africa, ebola is wreaking havoc in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.
WHO also warned that there could be up to 10 000 new cases of ebola per week over the next two months and that the death rate has now increased to 70%.
At a business dinner last week, Tourism minister Walter Mzembi warned Zimbabweans not to joke about ebola, adding that it tarnishes the country’s image as one of the best tourist destinations.
However, it is easy to understand the fear of Zimbabweans following government’s failure to deal with the cholera outbreak of 2008, which claimed more than 4 000 lives.
Apart from cholera, in 2009 the deadly H1N1 influenza that originated in Asia was detected in the country and government health institutions hurriedly launched the H1N1 vaccination programme.
Parirenyatwa last week said there was no ebola in the country and what we have are “several scares”.
But there is no doubt that no matter how government officials try to quell fears about ebola spreading to the country, Zimbabweans are in mortal fear that with the number of ebola cases increasing, it could be just a matter of time before the country registers its first cases.
An ebola epidemic would have disastrous consequences for the country’s economy that has been in the doldrums for over a decade.