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Uganda prepares for a new Ebola outbreak

Martina Schwikowski
September 28, 2022

Uganda has quickly put in place emergency plans to deal with recent Ebola cases. Though experts believe that the country is well prepared to handle the outbreak, a new epidemic cannot be ruled out yet.

A woman in protective gear takes the temperature of a young woman and man in Uganda
Emergency teams are on the ground to help contain the spread of Ebola in UgandaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/R. Kabuubi

Concerns are growing in Uganda that new Ebola infections recently detected in the East African country could turn into a full-fledged epidemic.

Several dozen people are believed to have contracted the virus in just a few days. Twenty-three have died, according to the Health Ministry.

Doctors fear that the viral infection could spread quickly. The disease was first detected in Mubende, in central Uganda, where a young man died on September 20 as a result of contracting Ebola. Now authorities are racing against time, tracing contacts in order to prevent the highly contagious virus from spreading any further.

Bats a possible cause

It is no easy task — primarily because the exact chains of infection and the source of the current outbreak are still unclear.

"We have had epidemics, actually, where we have failed to get the interface between the index case and the place where the virus was contracted," physician Innocent Nkonwa told DW.

Nkonwa suspects bats of carrying the virus. He recalled treating Ebola patients ten years ago in the Luweero district further east — an area where bats like to nest in houses. Even then there were indications that the virus had been transmitted from bats to humans.

Chart showing the number of Ebola infections in Uganda in 2022

The district of Mubende and the town of the same name are located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Kampala on a road that leads to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The neighboring country last experienced an Ebola outbreak in August, which was officially declared over on Tuesday. So far, no cases have been detected in the Ugandan capital Kampala. 

Uganda ready for spike in cases

Since the virus first appeared in 1976, there have been numerous outbreaks on the continent. The worst Ebola epidemic to date occurred in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, when more than 11,300 people died from the highly contagious hemorrhagic fever. A number of smaller outbreaks since then in the forests of East and Central Africa have quickly been contained.

Diana Atwine, permanent secretary at the Health Ministry, told DW that the current outbreak could quickly escalate into an epidemic.

"Our teams moved on the ground, worked with district rapid response teams," she said. "Right now, we are isolating all the contacts."

Secretary Diana Atwine sits and speak while a man wearing a mask stands near
Health Ministry Permanent Secretary Diana Atwine confirmed cases of Ebola in UgandaImage: Hajarah Nalwadda/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Uganda's health authorities are relatively well-equipped to deal with Ebola outbreaks. The country has the scientific facilities to detect the virus, a surveillance program and trained specialists. When the first cases were identified last week, the government immediately put its emergency plan into action.

Supported by specialists from the WHO, trained teams of doctors and nurses traveled to the affected region to isolate infected people as quickly as possible, teach the population simple protective measures and begin treating the sick.

Sudan strain back after 10 years

According to the WHO, it is the first time in over a decade that the Sudan strain of Ebola has been found in Uganda. While there is still no vaccine against the rare Sudan virus, early detection of cases and treatment of symptoms greatly increase the chances of survival, health experts said.

The new outbreak also did not catch the country unprepared. In the wake of previous outbreaks in Uganda and neighboring provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ugandan Ministry of Health and the WHO joined forces to equip the country against the virus. The last of of these actions took place in August 2022, when nine Ugandan doctors were trained in hospitals to deal with viral hemorrhagic fevers, according to the WHO.

Health workers beyond yellow tape at Mubende Regional Referral Hospital
Health measures being taken at Mubende Regional Referral HospitalImage: Nicholas Kajoba/AA/picture alliance

The organization plans to take further action to reinforce emergency medical teams in different regions of Africa.

"Countries need to have adequate capacities for a swift and effective response, and that includes human resources, supplies and coordination structures," said Fiona Braka, head of WHO's emergency operations in Africa.

Rapid response by emergency teams

Health systems in many African countries remain overburdened by multiple disease outbreaks and man-made crises. The WHO stresses that simulation exercises are critical to test the readiness and capacity of emergency medical teams across Africa.

In May, for example, Senegal allowed a military medical team to conduct such an exercise to strengthen its capacity and obtain an international certification for a high standard of emergency response.

Braka expressed confidence that the WHO would be able conduct simulation exercises in nine more countries before the end of the year, in addition to the eight countries that have already taken part.

"This will help us to reduce morbidity related to emergencies," she said.

Alex Gitta contributed to this article.

This piece was originally published in German.

Gorillas, bats and COVID-19