"We're Definitely Not Prepared" - African Healthcare Officials Fear Virus Spread

While the African continent continues to battle plagues of locust and food shortages, an even bigger worry is looming on the horizon, that some of the Chinese workers have carried the virus to Ethiopia or the African countries they work in, and will those countries be able to contain it while they can, while the numbers are small?

The virus that has spread through much of China has yet to be confirmed in Africa, but global health authorities are increasingly worried about the threat to the continent where an estimated 1 million Chinese now live, as some health workers on the ground warn they are not ready to handle an outbreak.

As we detailed previously, if travel bans to and from the infected parts of China turn out to have been justified then one country in particular may be worth watching, Ethiopia.  Ethiopia’s Bole International airport is the main African gateway to and from China. On average 1500 passengers per day arrive from China every day.  Ethiopia scans them all for symptoms which essentially means taking their temperature.

Many of those passengers then fly on to other parts of Africa where Chinese companies are doing business. These are 2018 figures courtesy of Brookings.

Unfortunately, as AP reports, it does not appear so... at least yet. Countries are racing to take precautions as hundreds of travelers arrive from China every day. Safeguards include stronger surveillance at ports of entry and improved quarantine and testing measures across Africa, home to 1.2 billion people and some of the world’s weakest systems for detecting and treating disease.

But the effort has been complicated by a critical shortage of testing kits and numerous illnesses that display symptoms similar to the flu-like virus.

“The problem is, even if it’s mild, it can paralyze the whole community,” said Dr. Michel Yao, emergency operations manager in Africa for the World Health Organization.

Those growing worried include employees at the Sino-Zambia Friendship Hospital in the mining city of Kitwe in northern Zambia, near the Congo border. Chinese companies operate mines on the outskirts of the city of more than half a million people. One company is headquartered in Wuhan, the city at the center of the virus outbreak. Hundreds of workers traveled between Zambia and China in recent weeks.

“We’re definitely not prepared. If we had a couple of cases, it would spread very quickly,” physiotherapist Fundi Sinkala said.

“We’re doing the best we can with what resources we have.”

The Sino-Zambia Friendship Hospital, or Sinozam, a low-slung facility near the city’s train station, has taken some precautions, including checking patient temperatures with infrared thermometers and establishing isolation areas.

Without testing, officials are “just relying on the symptoms” and whether they persist.

“But from what we are learning right now, some people show hardly any symptoms at all,” physiotherapist Fundi Sinkala said, calling that the hospital’s biggest worry.

Chinese embassies in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa have been unusually outspoken, giving news conferences and television interviews to discuss their response to the outbreak. Embassies require arriving Chinese citizens to declare where they have been in China. They also urge citizens to voluntarily isolate themselves for 14 days.

“We are now practicing hygiene, even in the mines,” said the Kitwe-based president of the Mine Workers Union of Zambia, Joseph Chewe.

“Any report of a person with coronavirus here will be very disastrous.”

The WHO says countries are obligated to inform it of any confirmed cases and are requested to report suspected cases as well. The WHO chief has publicly urged countries to share information. So far, African countries appear to be complying, a WHO adviser on health security, Dr. Ambrose Talisuna, told reporters.