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East Africa vigilant as Uganda locks down Ebola epicenter

Isaac Kaledzi | Alex Gitta
October 18, 2022

A lockdown is now in place in the two central districts of Uganda where Ebola has claimed at least 19 lives. Most of the country's immediate neighbors are taking action to keep the deadly virus out.

Health workers outside a hospital building
Ebola patients are being treated at a hospital in Mubende in central UgandaImage: Nicholas Kajoba/AA/picture alliance

To stop the spread of the Ebola outbreak, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has ordered the lockdown of two districts in Central Region, the epicenter of his country's latest Ebola outbreak.

Museveni, who had initially ruled out a lockdown, said "extra measures" were needed to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

Restrictions on traffic movement and people in and out of  Mubende and Kasanda districts came into effect on October 16 and will apply for 21 days.

Nineteen deaths and 54 infections have been reported in under a month since the outbreak was reported.

Diana Atwine at a media briefing
On September 20, Ugandan health official, Dr. Diana Atwine, confirmed the first death from the current Ebola outbreak in the countryImage: Hajarah Nalwadda/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

In Mubende on Monday, the lockdown was being enforced, with only motorcycles carrying cargo seen on the roads. 

Uganda's neighbors take precautions 

Recently, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda gradually intensified surveillance along their borders with Uganda to keep Ebola out.

Kenya set up an incident management team and conducted a rapid risk assessment in 20 counties deemed "high risk," Dr. Patrick Amoth, Director General of Health, told journalists on October 6.

The Health Ministry meanwhile said it beefed up surveillance and plans to set up Ebola screening laboratories along its borders with Uganda.

In Tanzania, health authorities raised an Ebola alert along its borders after the first case was reported in Uganda. On Monday, health workers underwent specialized training in the eastern Morogoro Region. 

Rwanda too has launched simulation exercises to sharpen its Ebola preparedness. One such simulation was carried out at the King Faisal Hospital in the Musanze District along the border with Uganda.

Health authorities in the nearby border district of Burera are also preparing health workers and facilities. The WHO representative in Rwanda, Dr. Brian Chilombo, inspected an Ebola isolation facility in Burera on October 14.

In South Sudan, the WHO has been supporting the health ministry in setting up an infectious diseases unit in Juba. 

The facility is expected to have the capacity to treat patients when completed and would help the country to isolate & treat patients with infectious diseases, including Ebola.

High risk of Ebola beyond Uganda 

The outbreak is the fifth in Uganda since 2000, when the Ebola virus left 200 people dead. However, scientists say that the Sudan Ebola strain of the virus circulating in Uganda now spreads relatively slowly.

However, an assessment by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows there is a high risk of the virus spreading beyond Uganda due to the regular cross-border movement of people.

"Our primary focus now is to support the government of Uganda to rapidly control and contain this outbreak, to stop it spreading to neighboring districts, and neighbouring countries," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters last week.

The WHO, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), and health ministers from around Africa agreed to work together to contain a a spill-over of Ebola from Uganda.

A map showing Uganda and neighboring countries

"We as a continent must work together to plan, prepare and respond to the Ebola outbreak and other public health threats," Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, the acting head of the Africa CDC, said.

He said that would mean the sharing of resources, regional efforts to build resilience capacity, and strengthening surveillance as well as treatment and laboratory systems.

First time on the Ebola frontline 

Some health workers in Mubende are demanding more money because of the risk. Four health workers are among the 19 Ebola victims.

"These are teams of people who are working for the first time on some of these people who died mysteriously, and we were concerned," Dr. Emmanuel Paul Batibwe, the head of Mubende Hospital, told DW.

"The patients did not present typical Ebola signs and the whole team was affected and infected in that procedure of trying to save a life. It is very, very sad indeed." 

Uganda grapples with Ebola outbreak

Ebola continued to spread after the first case in Madudu despite a government claim that the outbreak was under control.

In Central Region communities with recorded cases, authorities are trying to counter superstitious beliefs about the virus. 

Museveni has ordered traditional healers to stop treating people and gave police powers to arrest suspected Ebola patients who fail to isolate. 

Museveni said "witch doctors" had contributed to the spread of the virus. "Some people move out of these districts to seek treatment from traditional healers and witch doctors, this has led to the spread of Ebola to other districts."

Grief and anxiety

Community leaders and residents in Central Region, who DW spoke with, agreed that some people opted for traditional remedies, thinking their ill relatives had been bewitched. One resident who declined to be named told DW that traditional healers are generally more accessible and affordable.

"You can call the government to get an ambulance and wait for hours. When they come, they ask for a lot of money but these traditional healers you can pay with a goat or chicken, so it becomes very convenient for many people," the resident said.

Last month, Maliko Sempewo  lost his 12-year-old son to what he suspected was malaria. So when his wife fell ill a day later, he thought it had something to do with her grief.

But after her admission to the hospital in Madudu, Sempewo's wife was diagnosed with Ebola and isolated. "As she left in the ambulance, she cried for her children," he told DW.

"A patient in the isolation centre was the first to call us. It was around midday on a Saturday when he informed us that she had breathed her last."

Ebola has brought anxiety to affected communities. "Every day the medical teams come to trace the contacts and we are happy that the 21 days have elapsed none has contracted the disease, but we are also fearing, we may have other contacts," Fred Balongo, a Madudu resident, told DW.

Infografik Ebola Westafrika EN

What about a vaccine?

Last week, WHO chief Tedros told reporters that several Ebola vaccines are in various stages of development. He said that clinical trials involving two could begin in Uganda in the coming weeks, pending government approval.

"Unfortunately, the Ebola vaccines that have been so effective in controlling recent outbreaks in DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] are not effective against the type of Ebola virus which is responsible for the current outbreak in Uganda," he said.

Museveni's lockdown to curb the spread of Ebola in Uganda has sparked some concern within the informal business sector.

"What are we going to eat now that no car is supposed to stop here?" one highway vendor in Mubende District said in an interview with DW.

"He [Museveni] locked us down without thinking how we are going to survive.Let him send food and enforce the lockdown after, can you imagine 21 days, it takes only 7 days for someone to die of hunger."

Africa's pandemic strategy

Andrew Wasike Shimayula in Kenya contributed to this article.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen