Thursday January 23, 2020

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

Congo: Volatile Security Situation Stymies Efforts to End Ebola

The World Health Organization says the number of Ebola cases has decreased and stabilized over the past few weeks.

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Patients waiting for prescriptions to be filled by the hospital pharmacy sit underneath a sign warning about the symptoms of Ebola, at Kibogora district hospital, near Lake Kivu and close to the border with Congo, in western Rwanda, Nov. 4, 2019. VOA

The World Health Organization says that dangers posed by armed groups in two eastern Democratic Republic of Congo provinces are impeding progress in the battle to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.  Latest reports put the number of confirmed Ebola cases at 3,287, including 2,193 deaths.

International health workers have achieved a lot since the Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo was declared in August 2018. The World Health Organization says the number of Ebola cases has decreased and stabilized over the past few weeks.

While that is encouraging, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier says “we are not out of the woods yet.”

“The risk of re-introduction of Ebola into former hotspots remains high and is…contingent on the level of access and security in these communities,” Lindmeier siad. “So, the outbreak has been and is occurring in an extremely complex environment, marked by poor infrastructure, political instability, as you heard, community mistrust of national authorities and outsiders and ongoing conflict involving scores of armed…militia groups.”

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International health workers have achieved a lot since the Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo was declared in August 2018. Pixabay

Despite a recent decrease in the number of security incidents, attacks on health care workers and facilities remain unacceptably high.  From January to October, the WHO has documented more than 300 attacks, causing five deaths and 70 injuries of health care workers and patients.

And, last week, a health care worker was killed in his home and his wife critically injured.

The DRC has always been an area of high mobility. The armed conflict in the region has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.   But people move around for other reasons as well. Lindmeier tells VOA among those on the move are infected people who could spread the virus.

“Because they were moving, we cannot be too optimistic about ending this soon,” Lindmeier siad. “As I said in the beginning, the weekly number of cases have stabilized over the past few weeks, but we are not, definitely not out of the woods yet and should not cry victory…before we are at the end of this.”

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The WHO notes Ebola hotspots have shifted from urban areas to more rural, hard-to-reach communities.  It says that, plus the extremely volatile security situation, creates additional challenges in hunting down the virus. (VOA)