Tanzania keeping Ebola under wraps

Ebola could be already on the prowl in Tanzania, but the government is keeping it a secret. This is the official position of the World Health Organization (WHO), who says multiple cases have been secretly reported to it. These unofficial sources say a 34-year-old woman doctor in the capital city, Dar es Salaam, fell ill after her return from Uganda, tested positive for Ebola and died two days later, while another case is still uncertain in status.

Ebola Virus Ebola virus attacks the immune system - Illustration Credit: Crevis / Shutterstock
Ebola Virus Ebola virus attacks the immune system - Illustration Credit: Crevis / Shutterstock

The government says the disease has been ruled out – but avoided mentioning this particular patient. Instead, the Tanzanian government officially stated that it has ruled out Ebola in two cases, and advised its people to stay calm and not panic as there is no outbreak. It has not passed on any more information; neither has it allowed the samples to be tested at a WHO center for “secondary confirmation,” according to the organization.

According to the WHO, the patient first showed signs of the disease in August and tested positive later, dying on September 8. Many of the patient’s contacts became ill, and all have been put under quarantine. The WHO first came to know about the case only two days later, on September 10, from an unofficial source, who also reported two other suspected cases. The WHO officials have made repeated attempts to study the cases, but have not been allowed to see any clinical data relating to these patients, or their contacts.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is one of the viral hemorrhagic illnesses, initially causing sudden onset of fever with a sore throat, weakness and muscle pain. The patient then begins to vomit, have diarrhea, and bleed both internally and externally. The body secretions and blood are intensely infections, and infect anyone who comes in contact with them. The causes of death range from dehydration to failure of multiple organs.

Ebola in Africa

The WHO, other international health organizations, and the governments of several East African countries, are struggling to contain the present outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has had over 3,000 cases reported as of date, including 2100 fatalities. This is the largest outbreak since the far more horrific outbreak of 2014-2016, which took more than 11 000 lives.

However, the combined efforts of DRC and international health workers, including the WHO, have largely succeeded in keeping the virus confined to two provinces, with the use of newer drugs that are more effective against the virus. The containment effort involved tracing and following up people who could have been infected to as far away as Dubai and China.

Callous indifference?

In contrast is the attitude of the Tanzanian government, of whom the WHO said in its statement, “Clinical data, results of the investigations, possible contacts and potential laboratory tests performed for differential diagnosis of those patients have not been communicated to WHO.” In its most sharply worded reproof to any government so far, it said, “The limited available official information from Tanzanian authorities represents a challenge for assessing the risk posed by this event represents a challenge for assessing the risk posed by this event.”

The virus spreads easily and rapidly, but quick and decisive containment action is required to keep it within bounds, including quarantining all contacts and cases, and a strict handwashing regime for all people who come into contact with blood or secretions from an infected patient.

In the opinion of the WHO, the following factors could operate to pose a huge Ebola risk in Tanzania: the widespread travel of the index patient within the country before falling ill; the lack of proper case identification; and the lack of previous exposure to the virus.

The reasons are economic: Tanzania runs largely on tourism, and this in turn thrives on the country’s freedom so far from a history of Ebola infection.

On the other hand, the WHO reiterates its commitment to help if the virus is detected in Tanzania, with all means at its power including drugs and vaccines, but says, “This will occur upon request by the government.” According to WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, vaccine supplies at present are sufficient to deal with any episodes in Tanzania.

Other countries support the WHO stand, and the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has already tried to persuade Tanzania to fulfil its obligations under the under the International Health Regulations, by allowing independent investigators to study how and why the doctor died.

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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