HEALTH and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa yesterday said government was on the verge of imposing a travel ban to and from
Ebola-hit West African countries following reports that the disease had encroached into Southern Africa, with one case already recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Addressing a Press conference in Harare, Parirenyatwa said imposition of travel bans would be one of several measures employed by the government to keep the disease at bay.
“Right now, because of the DRC where we are separated only by Zambia and because of the long-distance truck drivers, the risk may be much closer,” Parirenyatwa said.
“In terms of international air travel, we do not have direct flights from that particular area which doesn’t mean anything in terms of where people can divert and still come, but we are getting closer to making a decision advised by the technical situation on the ground — the politics around us in terms of the region.
“As Sadc Health ministers, we continue to liaise and think that we are getting closer to a decision that may be along those lines.”
He said although other countries in the region had already imposed travel restrictions on their citizens, Zimbabwe had not yet reached that stage.
There were fears that if the Ebola virus spreads to Zimbabwe, the government might fail to contain it because of its heavily underfunded health sector which saw over 4 000 people succumbing to a cholera epidemic in 2008.
Parirenyatwa added: “We are not yet putting travel restrictions, but we are saying and advising rather strongly that those five countries [Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, DRC and Nigeria] that have been mentioned, please don’t go there now — avoid going there.
“We have been told that this particular outbreak will be with us for six to nine months and that message should be hammered all the time. We need a national response. Other countries have put travel restrictions, but we have not reached that stage — we need to be aggressive as well.”
Parirenyatwa said there were a lot of consequences that come with the disease, adding that government was now pondering various options to prevent the disease from encroaching into the country.
“The answer to all this is to try and crowd the virus in the countries that have been identified and I am so glad that WHO [World Health Organisation] is making those efforts to try and crowd it there and contain it within those countries,” Parirenyatwa said.
“So that’s one strategy that has been done, but in our particular case we would like to prevent it from coming here. It can be passed through international travel. Zimbabweans are one of the most travelled people on Earth. You will find them anywhere.”
Parirenyatwa said that government was also exploring ways of incentivising health care workers to make them remain vigilant in the event of an Ebola outbreak.
“We have to have stringent measures of infection control among our staff and we are now aware that health workers have been in the forefront suffering consequences of this virus and a lot have died within this particular outbreak,” he said.
“Our health workers are our frontliners and we therefore have to look after them and if it means giving them extra allowances, it will be worthwhile to protect ourselves as a country. So we need accurate mapping.”
He added that government would also soon roll out Ebola awareness campaigns to sensitise visitors and truck drivers about the disease.
“It is critical that people get to know the accurate facts. There must be clear posters at the airports and appropriate messages which indicate if one is from West Africa they should go in which direction. Now with DRC and truck drivers, you want to be vigilant along Chirundu, along Victoria Falls, those are areas that you need to look at and see that the messages are professional,” Parirenyatwa said.
“All our health professionals should observe universal protection of infection control as routine and get used to it. From now on, please wash hands, wear gloves — that is very important because you do not know what case you are dealing with. So just be careful.”
Parirenyatwa said government had set up an inter-ministerial taskforce on national Ebola preparedness and response. The taskforce would be chaired by deputy chief secretary in the Office of the President Ray Ndhlukula.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe has received 400 kits of type A protective clothing for health workers from WHO as government had set aside Wilkins Infectious Disease Hospital in Harare, Thorngrove Infectious Disease Hospital in Bulawayo and Hwange Colliery Hospital in Matabeleland North as emergency isolation centres for Ebola cases.
Ebola has claimed over 1 700 lives in West Africa mostly in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The Ebola virus, which has no cure yet, is spread between humans through direct contact with infected bodily fluids.
Meanwhile, Parirenyatwa told Members of the National Assembly to encourage their constituencies to seek divine intervention and minimise transmission of the Ebola virus through religious tourism to the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Nigeria.