Tanzania summons WHO official over accusations it withheld Ebola data

Tanzania on Tuesday summoned the World Health Organization’s local representative, who over the weekend asserted that the government refused to share information on suspected Ebola cases.

Transparency and speed are key to combating the deadly hemorrhagic fever because it can spread rapidly. Anyone deemed to have been in contact with potentially infected people must be quarantined and the public warned to step up precautions such as handwashing.

Government spokesman Hassan Abbasi said on Twitter that WHO country representative Tigest Ketsela Mengestu was summoned by deputy foreign affairs minister Damas Ndumbaro, in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam.

“The representative insisted that the WHO has not declared that there is Ebola in Tanzania, nor does it have any evidence on that and pledged to cooperate with the government,” Abbasi said.

“During the talks, the WHO agreed to strictly follow guidelines outlined by the agency itself and ratified by the government if it wants to get any additional information from the Tanzanian government.”

WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that the agency had not received any information after it had requested Tanzanian authorities to assess potential risks from the recent incidences.

She ruled out any punitive action, and reiterated that WHO had advised against any travel or trade restrictions based on the present circumstances.

“What we need to do is to continue communicating with them and provide them with help and expertise. We cannot sanction a country. It is not our mandate,” Chaib said.

WHO said late on Saturday it was made aware on Sept. 10 of the death of a patient in Dar es Salaam, and was unofficially told the next day that the person had tested positive for Ebola. The woman had died on Sept. 8.

In its weekend statement, WHO said it was unofficially told that Tanzania had two other possible Ebola cases. One had tested negative and there was no information on the other.

Officially, the Tanzanian government had said in the previous week it had no confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola. The government did not address the death of the woman directly and did not provide further information.

Tanzania has refuted allegations of harbouring an Ebola case in the country, formally telling the World Health Organisation (WHO), it had conducted investigations on suspicious cases and ruled out the deadly virus.

“This followed earlier rumours of the death of one person and illness in a few others,” the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Tanzanian authorities did not indicate what the cause of the illnesses might have been.”

The WHO received the notification on Sept. 14, the statement said. It was unclear why it took four days to make it public.

Suspicions of Ebola

The suspicion of Ebola in Taanzania had been fuelled by a woman died there earlier this month from an unknown illness following Ebola-like symptoms.

The WHO announcement came a day after the head of a U.S. government health agency travelled to Tanzania at the direction of America’s health secretary, Alex Azar.

Azar criticized Tanzania earlier this week for not sharing information, saying on Monday he was aware of a death in Tanzania and that the government had reported two suspected cases who tested negative for Ebola.

“The government of Tanzania, however, 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,” Azar told reporters during a prearranged tour of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to evaluate their Ebola response, according to a transcript of his remarks.

He called on Tanzania to comply with international obligations to share information and allow independent verification of test results.

Tanzania comes clean

Tanzania’s health minister said on Saturday that the government had investigated two recent cases of unknown illnesses, but they were not Ebola.

“The two patients did not have Ebola,” Ummy Mwalimu told reporters. “There is no Ebola outbreak in Tanzania as we speak, people should not panic.”

She did not say if the two cases investigated included the death of the woman. The ministry did not answer calls on Wednesday.

There is increased vigilance across East Africa after an outbreak of Ebola in the DRC killed more than 2,000 people. It is the second-largest Ebola outbreak in global history.

Concern has focused on a woman who died on Sept. 8 in Dar es Salaam, after exhibiting symptoms common to several diseases, including Ebola. There was no indication the woman had travelled to an affected area or had contact with an infected person.


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