Malawi health authorities said they are taking measures to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus into the country - with airport screenings of international passengers.
However, critics said those measures are not enough, noting that medical workers need urgent training on how to handle an infected person, specialized equipment is needed and public education efforts must be stepped up.
Ministry of Health officials said the airport screenings are currently done to those passengers from West African countries hit hardest by the Ebola virus - Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The government also has set up quarantine centers at the country’s two airports - Kamuzu International Airport in the capital, Lilongwe, and Chileka Airport in the commercial capital, Blantyre - for those who may have contracted the virus.
Official: No need to panic
Charles Mwansambo, director of health services in the Ministry of Health, told journalists in Lilongwe that there is no need for Malawians to panic because the chances of them getting infected are minimal.
“I want to assure the members of the general public not to panic because Ebola is spread by direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, saliva and urine. And chances of Malawians going to West Africa and getting in touch with these bodily fluids are very minimal,” Mwansambo said.
But the chairperson of Malawi’s Parliamentary Committee on Health, Juliana Lunguzi, told VOA that Mwansambo's comments are unrealistic.
She said there is no logic in telling people not to panic when the situation on the ground shows the government is doing nothing to prevent the outbreak.
“To say ‘don’t panic’ [is unrealistic]. Anything can happen and people go to Nigeria, especially to T.B. Joshua synagogue [in Lagos, Nigeria], where they are looking for healing. And Ebola is one [of] the diseases so we shouldn’t relax,” Lunguzi said.
“We are saying we would rather panic and let a certain group be panicking now by giving us a response that somebody is doing something so that we can see the readiness somewhere,” she added.
She said the message contained in the only press release the government has so far issued on the Ebola virus does not benefit many Malawians because “it’s in English, a language many Malawians do not understand.”
Lunguzi, who is a nurse by profession, said her committee will soon summon government authorities to explain their readiness in terms of medical equipment for combating the possible spread of Ebola into the country.
“We know our hospitals are already having serious shortages of medical supplies and equipment. Currently, we are yet to hear if there is anything,” Lunguzi said.
“We have called several hospitals; everybody says, ‘We don’t have anything ready in readiness of Ebola.’ So we want to make sure that we meet and let the government tell us what they have done,” she added.
Jonathan Gama, chairman of the Human Resources for Health coalition of health professionals in Malawi, said Malawi is not in any way ready to contain the virus.
Gama cited inadequate medical equipment, protective wear and orientation for health workers as among the signs of the country’s unpreparedness.
“What we are suggesting is that the health workers should be trained and after training them there should be procurement of resources as Ebola demands, so that when Ebola incidences appear in Malawi we should not be taken by surprise,” Gama said.
Budgeting for crisis
But Ministry of Health officials insist that preparations are being made to prevent the spread of the virus.
Spokesman Henry Chimbali told reporters the ministry is working on a budget that would fund efforts to contain the deadly disease.
The World Health Organization said the virus is a global health problem.
To contain the spread, some African countries, including Guinea and Zambia, have closed their borders with Western African countries hardest hit by the ebola virus.