Ebola Virus Disease has now spread across five farming districts in Central Uganda, raising fears of more unknown cases.
This comes just two weeks after Ugandan authorities first announced that a 24-year-old man had died of the relatively rare Sudan strain of Ebola.
The centre of the outbreak lies along a major highway connecting Uganda’s capital, Kampala, with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just within 20 miles from Kibale National Park, popular with foreign tourists coming to see Uganda’s chimpanzees.
Reports revealed that new tools that have transformed the fight against Ebola in recent years have proven not to work against the Sudan strain of the virus. Rapid tests that have also been used to quickly diagnose patients showing Ebola symptoms also can’t pick up the Sudan strain, which means samples need to be shipped 110 miles to the only laboratory in the country equipped to detect the strain through polymerase chain reaction.
Kartik Chandran, a virologist at the New York City-based Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has spent years researching treatment strategies for Ebola said, “This is another wake-up call for the international community, we have to keep working on vaccines and therapeutics that work on multiple strains, not just a single strain, ready for the next outbreak.”
The World Health Organisation and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have pointed to Uganda’s record of quickly containing Ebola outbreaks, including before vaccines were approved.
But Ugandan doctors and some health officials say they worry that the coronavirus pandemic and budget cuts have weakened the country’s health system. Many village health teams that are usually on the lookout for Ebola and other contagious diseases have stopped working after the government said it lacked the funds to raise members’ monthly salaries of around $2.50 to $25 as promised three years ago.
Trainee doctors at the main Ebola treatment centre have gone on strike, saying they haven’t been given adequate protective gear. Uganda’s Health Minister, Jane Aceng, told health workers at the centre that the government couldn’t afford to pay them special Ebola allowances until donors have provided at least $18 million in funding to respond to the outbreak over the next three months. A doctor and a midwife have already died from the virus and at least five other healthcare workers have been infected.
“You cannot compare the allowances you’re asking for with a life,” Dr. Aceng said over the weekend. “Let us save lives, money will come later.”
So far, there are now 43 confirmed cases, including nine deaths. Nineteen other people who either lived in or had visited the late 24-year-old man’s village are also believed to have died from the virus as far back as early August, but were never tested.