By Katharine Houreld

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Nurses in Kenya’s capital and at least two towns have launched protests or refused to treat suspected coronavirus patients because the government has not given them enough protective gear or training, a medical union chief said.

Only a fraction of Kenya’s estimated 100,000 healthcare workers had received any instruction in how to protect themselves, Seth Panyako, the secretary general of the Kenya National Union of Nurses, told Reuters.

Government spokesman Cyrus Oguna said he would check into the reports of the training and protective gear shortages.

Kenya had reported 28 cases of the coronavirus and one death as of Friday. The virus has so far been multiplying across Africa more slowly than in Asia or Europe – but the World Health Organization has warned the continent’s window to curb the infection is narrowing every day.

Nurses in the western Kenyan town of Kakamega and the coastal town of Kilifi ran away when patients with coronavirus symptoms came to their hospitals over the past two weeks, Panyako said on Thursday.

Nurses at Nairobi’s Mbagathi County Hospital went on a go-slow protest last week in protest at a lack of protective gear and training. They feared catching the disease and infecting their families, Panyako said.

“The government is not taking it seriously when health workers run away,” he said.

“My clear message to the government … give them the protective equipment they need.”

Panyako, whose union represents 30,000 health workers, said he had only heard of 1,200 staff getting training in how to protect themselves.

A host of initiatives have sprung up to fill the gaps.

Kenyan start-up, whose Flare app functions as the Uber for private ambulances in Kenya, last week began offering training and protective equipment for the 600 nurses and paramedics using its network.

One paramedic on a course told Reuters he had previously refused to attend a suspected coronavirus patient because he did not have training.

“The team was scared so we didn’t go,” he said, declining to give his name.

Caitlin Dolkart, who co-founded, said her company had applied for government permission for trained paramedics to carry out coronavirus tests in patients’ homes.

“They are on the frontlines of responding to patients,” she said. “They have to be protected.”

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)