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Ebola Fears Cloud Jehovah's Witnesses Meeting in Zimbabwe


Zimbabwe's government is in a quandary as the country prepares to host a three-day Jehovah's Witnesses conference with 50,000 people from around the world expected to attend. Some delegates will come from West Africa, where there has been an outbreak of Ebola. Given the state of the host’s health care system, however, some delegates might be barred from attending.

Dr. Christopher Tapfumaneyi, the principal director in Zimbabwe’s health ministry, says the country has not had an Ebola case, but that the government is aware of problems that the conference might present. Tapfumaneyi says with the advice of the World Health Organization, Zimbabwe has started educating some medical officials about Ebola.

“They are going to ensure that if there is a visitor coming into the country who in the past three weeks has been in the three countries that have been targeted, they will look at the person closely. If there is reason to isolate that person, that isolation will be done. The centers have already been prepared for that," he said.

The Zimbabwean official is referring to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and that Zimbabwe is not taking chances. The government has since recalled all its soldiers on the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia following the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

The World Health Organization head in Zimbabwe, Dr. David Okello, says the southern African nation must not panic.

“The likelihood of Ebola coming here is remote," he said. "The risk is low, but we live in a global village. Somebody could be infected with Ebola in Liberia, flies to South Africa and is here the next day. I think my main worry is we are now dealing with, not an epidemic of Ebola here, but an epidemic of fear and panic."

Zimbabwe's health care system has been near collapse for more than a decade.

Earlier this week, the African Union said the continent’s ministers of health would meet in September to lobby their countries to replenish the AU's Special Emergency Fund for Drought and Famine, which will also now cover public health.

The AU said the Ebola outbreak provides an impetus to speed up the establishment of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention for early detection, preparedness and response. An early detection center is what all Jehovah's Witnesses coming to Zimbabwe will experience.

Effort Mugabe, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Aug. 13, 2014. (Sebastian Mhofu)

Effort Mugabe, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Aug. 13, 2014. (Sebastian Mhofu)

If they have been to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, they might not attend the conference, but Effort Mugabe, the coordinator of the Jehovah's Witnesses conference, is convinced all will go well.

“We are not very much concerned, because very shortly the government assured that they are in total control of it. We do hope that with the help of the government, we will be happy to do it without any problems at all," he said.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is probably the deadliest in history and led health ministers from southern Africa to meet in South Africa last week. They asked World Health Organization officials to provide for the control of the international spread of disease across borders.

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