At a Chinese-run hospital in Zambia, some employees watched as people who recently returned from China showed up with coughs but were not placed in isolation. A doctor tending to those patients has stopped coming to work, and health workers have been ordered not to speak publicly about the new virus that has killed hundreds around the world.
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.
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. Employees wear masks. Gloves, disinfectant and oxygen inhalers have been stockpiled. Sinozam treats many Chinese in Kitwe and its precautions go further than other hospitals in the area.
But the employees and others familiar with the matter, some of whom spoke anonymously, say some Chinese patients checked in with coughs and fevers but did not get placed in isolation.
Visiting Zambian health officials concluded the patients did not merit special treatment and did not take samples to test for the virus. After the people recovered, they were sent home with antibiotics, employees said.
On Wednesday, the hospital set up a new fever clinic, where people arriving with a high temperature are now taken right away. It’s “unfortunate” the ward wasn’t set up earlier, Sinkala said.
Two people familiar with the matter say a doctor tending to the sick has fallen ill. Dr. Yu Jianlan has not come to work in the past week, and hospital administrators have not explained her absence, Sinkala said. The other person spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Hospital administrator Li Zhibing said there were no patients with a fever and said Yu had a urinary tract infection, not a fever. But a notice posted by the Zambia-China Cooperation Zone, which manages the hospital, quoted an employee as saying on Jan. 27 that the facility “probably sees 120 fever patients a day, and at least 70 of them are carrying germs” of various diseases.
Earlier this week, a Zambian official acknowledged for the first time that his country was following up on an unspecified number of suspected cases. Zambia is one of 13 African countries identified by WHO as a high priority because of busy travel links with China.
Copperbelt provincial health director Dr. Robert Zulu, who oversees Kitwe and the surrounding region, told the Associated Press he would not discuss details, citing privacy. But he added, “when any case is confirmed, you will be informed.”
Crucially, no one in Zambia has been able to test for the virus so far. Like most African countries, it has been waiting for a substance known as a reagent, which labs require to confirm whether a patient is infected. Labs in just six of Africa’s 54 countries were equipped as of mid-week. That means a wait of two or more days to know whether a sample shipped to South Africa or even outside the continent tests positive.