Tanzania fights Ebola case claims as WHO demands test results

Saturday September 28 2019

A member of the Crisis Response Unit measures the temperature of a visitor at  Ebola treatment centre in DRC.

A member of the Crisis Response Unit measures the temperature of a visitor at Ebola treatment centre in DRC. Tanzanian government says it has no confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The EastAfrican
By The EastAfrican
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Following a rare public reprimand by the World Health Organisation for refusing to share clinical samples and test results to ascertain the death of a patient on September 8 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania has come out fighting against allegations of a confirmed case of the disease in the country.

Tanzania was reprimanded by the WHO for not sharing detailed information, withholding clinical samples for a secondary testing on a suspected Ebola case despite its repeated requests.

Speaking to The EastAfrican in an interview, Dr Chaula Zaina, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health was last week still non-committal on declaring the specific illness that was tested in the index cases and which the government declared was not a case of Ebola.

“The tests were to find out whether the patients were infected by Ebola or not, and we confirmed them negative,” she said, declining to reveal the results of the specimen tested, adding, “there is no need to reveal to the public another illness we found in the tests.”

She added that there were many achievements the Health Ministry has made that justify to be reported and asked the media to stop fishing for non-existent information.

“I will not provide more details on the matter for now,” she said.

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Speaking to The EastAfrican, Susannah Savage, WHO’s communication consultant in Africa regional office, said they have requested for information from the government through the international health regulations and the National Focal Point and existing networks and relationships in country, but none has yielded fruit.

A fortnight ago, a medical doctor said to have travelled from DR Congo died at the Temeke Referral Hospital in Dar es Salaam and unconfirmed reports said the cause of death could be Ebola. A second patient also in Dar es Salaam was alleged to have died of Ebola.

The government denied the reports and ran its own independent tests but refused to share samples used in the test with WHO officials and declared it was not a case of Ebola.

Suspect samples

WHO recommends countries that have not had an Ebola outbreak to allow suspect samples be tested by a reference laboratory for the first 50 negative samples.

“Tanzania for example, could consider having samples tested at Uganda Virus Research Institute in Uganda. This is a recommendation, not a requirement,” Ms Savage said.

WHO made the announcement of Tanzania's refusal after the head of the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Robert Redfield made a stopover in the country at the end of an evaluation tour of Ebola-response measures in the DR Congo, as well as Uganda which has also reported Ebola spillover cases from the DR Congo.

Dr Redfield is said to have been sent over to Tanzania by US Secretary of Health Alex Azar, who was quoted as expressing doubts over Tanzania's flat-out Ebola denial after his visit to DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.

"The government of Tanzania has not made available the samples or the ability to test the index case of the individual who died, nor has it made available any other information," Mr Azar said.

Shortly, the government of Tanzania summoned Dr Tigest Ketsela Mengestu, the WHO country representative in Dar es Salaam to discuss its statement.

Emergency appeal

It is curious that following the allegations of confirmed case of Ebola in the country, Tanzania sent a formal emergency appeal to various international donor agencies for $9.5 million financial support for the country’s preparedness and operational readiness against an Ebola threat.

According to Dr Zaina who signed the letter, the money would be spent to strengthen epidemic preparedness and operational readiness and subnational levels, create capacity on infection prevention and control unit at selected Ebola treatment units, perform minor renovations where necessary to improve care and preparing an adequate contact tracers.

Funds committed

Department for International Development (DfID) is so far the only donor that has committed funds to the strengthened preparedness in Surrounding countries pillar of the strategic response plan. The rest of the funding is coming from WHO.

WHO member states, Tanzania included, are obligated under International Health Regulations to report suspected cases of Ebola to the organisation.

The agency’s guidelines for diagnosing the illness also recommend secondary testing of samples at an outside, specialised laboratory—a step the Tanzania government has refused.

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