Tuesday June 25, 2019

Ebola Outbreak in Uganda Raise Fears of Spread First Time Beyond Congo

The current Ebola epidemic began in August last year in eastern Congo and has already infected at least 2,062 people, killing 1,390 of them

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Ugandan medical staff inspect the Ebola preparedness facilities at the Bwera general hospital near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Bwera, Uganda, June 12, 2019. VOA

Uganda announced two more cases of Ebola on Wednesday — a grandmother and a three-year-old boy — confirming that a deadly outbreak has spread for the first time beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ugandan cases show the epidemic is entering a “truly frightening” phase and could kill many more people, one infectious disease specialist told Reuters.

A five-year-old boy who had crossed into Uganda from Congo died late Tuesday, said Uganda’s health minister, Jane Ruth Aceng, and his family were now being monitored in isolation. The two new victims were the boy’s brother and grandmother, the Ugandan Health Ministry said. His grandfather had recently died of Ebola.

Uganda plans to repatriate the two patients with Ebola to Congo, saying they can get better treatment in specialized facilities there. Three more family members, who are so far healthy, will also be repatriated, a health ministry spokesman said. The family must consent to all repatriations, he said.

“This epidemic is in a truly frightening phase and shows no sign of stopping,” said Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, which is involved in fighting Ebola.

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People crossing the border have their temperature taken to check for symptoms of Ebola, at the border crossing near Kasindi, eastern Congo, June 12, 2019, just across from the Ugandan town of Bwera. VOA

“We can expect and should plan for more cases in DRC and neighboring countries,” he said, adding: “There are now more deaths than any other Ebola outbreak in history, bar the West Africa epidemic of 2013-16, and there can be no doubt that the situation could escalate towards those terrible levels.”

The current Ebola epidemic began in August last year in eastern Congo and has already infected at least 2,062 people, killing 1,390 of them. The West Africa epidemic infected 28,000 people and killed 11,300, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The viral disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids, causing hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will reconvene an emergency committee Friday to decide whether the outbreak is an international public health emergency and how to manage it, a WHO statement said.

Violent backlash

Authorities have struggled to contain the disease partly because health workers have been repeatedly attacked in conflict-ravaged eastern Congo, the epicenter of the outbreak.

This year, the WHO has documented 174 attacks on health care workers and facilities in Congo, causing 5 deaths and 51 injuries of health care workers and patients, Geneva-based spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Reuters on Wednesday.

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Health workers dressed in Ebola protective suits are seen readying an Ebola preparedness facility at the Bwera general hospital near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Bwera, Uganda, June 12, 2019. VOA

There is widespread public mistrust of the Congo government and health workers from outside the region, giving rise to rumors that the disease is a ruse to try to rig elections in the area, where dozens of armed groups operate. Other rumors accuse health teams of spreading the disease. Many victims have sought treatment with traditional healers instead.

High alert

Uganda, which has been on high alert for a possible spread of Ebola and has already vaccinated many frontline health workers, is relatively well prepared to contain the virus. WHO is bringing in 3,500 additional vaccines and will begin vaccinating more people Friday.

ALSO READ: Measles Epidemic on Rise in Congo After Ebola Outbreak

“The current cases in Uganda will be quickly contained but the failure to stop the current Ebola epidemic in DRC is simply tragic,” said Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Britain’s Reading University. Eastern Congo also borders South Sudan, which is struggling to emerge from five years of devastating civil war and whose health facilities are basic even in the capital.

“We are deeply concerned for countries such as South Sudan that do not have the infrastructure to handle an outbreak,” said Whitney Elmer, Congo country director at aid group Mercy Corps. (VOA)

Next Story

Porous Border Could Hinder Efforts to Control the Outbreak of Ebola

Eastern Congo has battled the Ebola outbreak since last August

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People coming from Congo have their temperature measured to screen for symptoms of Ebola, at the Mpondwe border crossing with Congo, in western Uganda, June 14, 2019. VOA

Several well-trodden paths crisscross this lush area where people walk between Congo and Uganda to visit nearby family and friends and go to the busy markets.

The problem is that the pedestrians may unknowingly be carrying the deadly Ebola virus, and hindering efforts to control the current outbreak in eastern Congo, which has killed more than 1,400 people.

The busy border post is open 12 hours a day from 7 a.m., but after dark people walk along the “panyas,” or “mouse paths,” as the narrow dirt trails are known in the local Kiswahili language.

The footpaths show the close kinship between the two countries, where most people have relatives on both sides of the border. But as Ebola rages they are a source of worry for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent any further cross-border contamination. Eastern Congo has battled the Ebola outbreak since last August and last week the disease spread to Uganda, where two people died of the hemorrhagic fever.

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The problem is that the pedestrians may unknowingly be carrying the deadly Ebola virus. Pixabay

“This border is very porous,” said James Mwanga, a Ugandan police officer in charge of the Mpondwe border post. “You will not know who has passed if the person went through the unofficial border posts, in most cases. Now there is anxiety and so on. We have heightened our alertness.”

The Ebola deaths in Uganda happened after a family of Congolese-Ugandans traveled to Congo to care for a family elder suffering from the disease.

Authorities believe members of that family, including a 5-year-old boy and his 50-year-old grandmother who have since died of Ebola , took a footpath back into Uganda. In doing so, they may have exposed many Ugandans to the viral disease.

The current outbreak in eastern Congo has become the second worst, after the West Africa epidemic of 2014-2016 in which more than 11,000 people died.

Also Read- Richer Countries Show Lower Trust in Vaccines

The virus can spread quickly via close contact with bodily fluids of those infected and can be fatal in up to 90% of cases.

Despite new anti-Ebola vaccines, non-biological factors have made the outbreak difficult to control.

Eastern Congo is one of the world’s most turbulent regions, and rebels have attacked medical centers. Community resistance based in fear and mistrust has also hurt Ebola response work.

Identifying people who might have been exposed is crucial. The World Health Organization says at least 112 Ebola contacts have been identified in Uganda.

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But as Ebola rages they are a source of worry for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent any further cross-border contamination. Pixabay

The outbreak is an “extraordinary event” of deep concern but does not yet merit being declared a global emergency , a Word Health Organization expert committee said last week.

Declaring an emergency could have “unintended consequences,” such as airlines stopping flights or governments closing borders, Preben Aavitsland, the acting chair of the committee, told reporters.

Congo’s Ministry of Health said the decision shows that its efforts to control the outbreak are effective, and some Congolese health workers are also opposed to declaring an emergency.

“Imagine if neighboring countries closed their borders because of us,” said Gerard Kasereka, a health worker who oversees preventive handwashing in the Congolese town of Butembo. “We would suffer because most of the people in Butembo make their living from commerce and most of our merchandise comes from Uganda, Kenya and Dubai.”

Also Read- Monthly Data Usage Per Smartphone Highest in India, States a Report by Ericsson

Despite the obvious risks of further cross-border contamination, Ugandan health officials insist they are prepared to prevent the disease from spreading . They urge vigilance and advise people to avoid hugging and even handshakes. At multiple border crossings travelers must wash their hands in chlorinated water and have their temperature taken before they can proceed.

Uganda has faced several Ebola outbreaks in recent years and has succeeded in bringing them under control, although the area in western Uganda where last week’s deaths occurred has never experienced an outbreak. The country’s first outbreak, in 2000, infected 425 Ugandans and killed more than half of them in the country’s north. Another outbreak in 2007 killed 37 people in Bundibugyo, a remote district close to the Congo border.

“I cannot find a relative in Uganda who is willing to let me stay with them,” said Morian Kabugho, who lives in the Congolese village of Kasindipolo and crosses into Uganda to sell eggs in the busy market.

She complained of the health officials in Congo. “I am not happy with my government. The nurses are lazy. When you go to the nearest health center, they will tell you to go far away in Beni,” Kabugho said.

She said if she ever had a fever and feared she had contracted Ebola, she would cross into Uganda in hopes of getting better care there.

Local authorities acknowledge it is difficult to police the border but hope more people will heed safety messages.

“The challenge we have here is low levels of adoption of the messages we send to the people. A woman comes from Congo, avoids the border crossing and goes through a panya,” said Moses Mugisa, a town clerk who oversees the border area.

As many as 800 Congolese walk into Uganda daily at the Mpondwe border post, according to official figures, but there is no count of how many cross using the footpaths. The numbers swell on market days, when traders arrive with everything from vegetables to sacks of grain.

“The numbers are overwhelming,” said Primrose Natukunda, a branch manager with the Uganda Red Cross who supervises health teams screening travelers. “So, it’s not easy. It’s constant. Every minute you have to be on alert.”

When the border post is closed, the footpaths come alive after dusk, she said: “At night that’s where people pass. There is no one to stop them.” (VOA)