East African countries are preparing for a possible outbreak of Ebola after the World Health Organisation warned the killer disease could spread to the region as a result of heavy human traffic flow.
Kenya — which is considered most at risk of the epidemic owing to the fact that its national airline operates regular flights to the affected countries in West Africa — has secured some 5,000 pieces of protective equipment from WHO to be used in surveillance and treatment, and is seeking more.
The kits contain gloves, gumboots, clothing and emergency medicine for treating Ebola patients. These are intravenous fluids or oral rehydration drugs and drugs for treating the high fever.
In addition, Kenya’s Ministry of Health has also submitted a budgetary request to Treasury for $5.9 million to help set up adequate response structures.
Tanzania announced it has purchased 12,750 protective kits, which have been distributed to all border points, and expects more from WHO. It is also importing scanners to be fixed at airports and other entry points for detection of the symptoms of Ebola.
The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) in Nairobi, which is currently serving as the reference laboratory for testing all the suspected Ebola samples in the East African region, says it has so far received two samples from two leading hospitals in Nairobi, but none yet from any other EAC country. Results of the two samples are yet to be announced.
On the continental level, the African Union has pledged to give $1 million to help fight the disease that has so far killed more than 1,000 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
It is expected to call an Extraordinary Meeting of the Bureau of the 6th Conference of the AU Ministers of Health in September to lobby member states to replenish the African Union Special Emergency Fund for Drought and Famine, which will now also cover public health.
In addition, the meeting will call for the WHO-managed African Public Health Emergency Fund to be replenished to support affected countries.
According to WHO, Kenya and Ethiopia have been mapped among the high risk countries for a possible Ebola outbreak: “The two countries have major flights flying in and out of the West Africa nations every day and, therefore, there is heavy human traffic flow which can easily lead to the spread of the disease in these countries,” said WHO country representative for Kenya Custodia Mandlhate.
The official advised the two countries to enhance their preparedness for prevention, including early detection and response.
Some of the world’s major airlines, including British Airways and Lufthansa, have cancelled flights to the affected countries, but Kenya Airways has said it will not stop flying to the West Africa capitals, but will instead enhance its surveillance of the passengers at the points of entry and exit.
“The WHO has not advised us to stop flights from the affected areas,” said Titus Naikuni, Kenya Airways’ outgoing chief executive officer.
“We do not see a major risk that warrants stopping operations in the region. This means we will continue with our flights while reviewing the position on a daily basis.”
The decision has been criticised by civil society organisations, the Consumers Federation of Kenya (Cofek) and the Parliamentary Human Rights Group.
The airline flies 44 times a week to 10 West African cities, including Freetown in Sierra Leone, Monrovia in Liberia and Lagos in Nigeria. The other destinations are Cotonou in Benin, Accra in Ghana, Dakar in Senegal, Yaoundé and Douala in Cameroon, Bamako in Mali and Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire.
However, Kenya Airways Saturday temporarily cancelled flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone effective August 19, citing situation risk assessment by Kenya’s Ministry of Health.
About 60 per cent of passengers from the West African countries are usually in transit through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
South Korean national carrier Korean Air last week said it would temporarily suspend flights to Nairobi after the WHO said the country was at a high risk of Ebola.
Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have also heightened their disease surveillance at their major airports of JKIA, Kilimanjaro and Entebbe respectively.
Health officers have been trained and deployed to the airports to test all passengers from West Africa for possible symptoms of Ebola. High fevers, vomiting and dehydrations are the first symptoms experienced by Ebola patients.
According to Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia, the ministry is jointly working on disease surveillance with Kenya Airways, the Kenya Airports Authority, Kemri and WHO.
“This is part of the 10-point strategy formulated to deal with Ebola, which also includes temporary holding rooms at JKIA and all the border points and training of the health officers,” said Mr Macharia.
The government has set up isolation units at Kenyatta National Hospital and Mbagathi Hospital.
Kenya’s Director of Medical Services, Dr Nicholas Muraguri, said the isolation ward at KNH has a capacity of 16 beds, and would be expanded to accommodate 30.
In Tanzania, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare Seif Rashid said scanners will be fixed at the airports and other entry points to detect people with Ebola symptoms.
“We have also started an awareness campaign by distributing posters and brochures with information on Ebola symptoms,” said Mr Rashid.
Last week, the Tanzanian Health Ministry advised citizens to postpone all travel to countries where the disease has been detected.
Tanzania will use Kemri to test samples as it works to raise the quality of its local laboratories to international standards.
In Rwanda, the Ministry of Health said in a statement that its surveillance and emergency management systems were in place.
“Health workers have been trained across the country and are vigilant. This has helped timely detection, notification and appropriate management of any suspected cases to safeguard Rwandans,” said the ministry.
Uganda’s Health Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda said that besides keeping in close contact with WHO and sharing information on management and control, the ministry recently intensified campaigns to educate the public on Ebola and how to manage people suspected of having the deadly virus.
“Our district health teams are in place and on the lookout,” he said.
Dr Julius Lutwama, an Ebola expert and Director of Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), told The EastAfrican that the Ebola National Task Force, comprising specialists from UVRI, the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and medical charity Medecines Sans Frontieres (MSF), are on standby to manage the disease, should the virus strike in the country.
A permanent Ebola screening centre has been established at Entebbe Airport to check travellers, and Dr Rugunda said health officials at border posts are working to screen people entering the country.
The WHO has classified the four West African countries — Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria —suffering from the Ebola outbreak in Category 1 (highest risk) for the transmission category; Kenya, Ethiopia and the neighbouring countries of the four West African countries in Category 2 (high risk) and the rest of the world in Category 3 (low risk).
The WHO has said that the scale of the Ebola outbreak appears to be “vastly underestimated,” as the death toll from the disease had reached 1,069 by press time.
There is no cure for Ebola and the WHO has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.
The body has warned that the outbreak was expected to continue “for some time.”
“Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak,” said WHO in a statement.
“Part of the challenge was the fact that the outbreak was in settings characterised by extreme poverty, dysfunctional health systems, a severe shortage of doctors and rampant fear.”
Guinea and Liberia have also declared the disease a national health emergency. This means tighter border controls, the immediate isolation of anyone suspected to have Ebola and a ban on moving bodies from one town to another, state radio reported.
The WHO approved the use of an untested drug, ZMapp, on patients with their consent. Liberia is the first African country to try the drug.