KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda is coping with a fresh outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
Ebola killed a 12-year girl in Uganda's Luwero district, about 45 miles north of Kampala, the Ugandan Ministry of Health and the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed this week.
“Laboratory investigations confirmed Ebola to be the cause of illness and death”, said Dr. Anthony Mbonye, Uganda’s commissioner for community health about the re-emergence of the deadly virus that has not been seen in Uganda for years.
"Just one case is considered an epidemic because it can spread quickly and it is highly fatal," Mbonye said.
Ebola’s most recent outbreak in Uganda, in 2008, killed 37 people. Health officials are now monitoring more than 30 people who had been in contact with the infected girl. A nurse who treated the girl showed some signs of Ebola and is under surveillance, reported health officials.
The virus and the disease derive their names from the site of the first outbreak in 1976, the Ebola River Valley in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Ebola hemorrhagic fever is deadly but preventable. The disease occurs throughout central and west Africa.
According to the CDC a person suffering from Ebola has a sudden onset of high fever with any of the following: headache, vomiting blood, joint and muscle pains, bleeding through body openings (eyes, nose, gums, ears, anus) and reduced urine. Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with body fluids of an infected person or the body of someone who has died from the disease.
To minimize the risk of contracting Ebola, people must avoid direct contact with body fluids (blood, saliva, vomitus, urine, and stool) by wearing protective gloves, masks and gowns. People must also avoid communal washing of hands.
Ebola fever was first identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The disease occurs throughout central Africa and is suspected to be contracted through contact with monkeys. One outbreak in Congo, formerly Zaire, killed 250 people in 1995.
In Uganda in 2000 more than 400 people were infected with Ebola and 224 died from the virus.
Ugandan officials are working to make sure this remains an isolated case and does not spread. Uganda is the only country in Africa to set up a laboratory that can test for Ebola. Before that blood samples would have to be sent to Europe or the U.S. Ugandans are heeding the health warnings.
This outbreak comes at a time when tempers are high following the recent “walk-to-work” anti-government protests against rising food and fuel costs and the subsequent violent reaction by police. Some Ugandans see the new outbreak of Ebola as symptomatic of overall government failure with regards to healthcare.
“Ebola? The regime is to blame! The health sector is among the most underfunded sectors in Uganda with no money set aside for research and emergencies” said concerned Kampala resident, Derrick Opio.
Another example of the importance of the Ugandan government's health care system is the nation’s fight against HIV/AIDS.
In the 1990s Uganda was lauded as a global leader in the fight against HIV because it succeeded in dramatically lowering its HIV infection rate. However, recent studies indicate those gains have been reversed and the overall HIV infection rate is rising rapidly.
After the first case of HIV/AIDS was diagnosed near Lake Victoria in 1982, Uganda’s HIV infection prevalence rose to 29 percent of the adult population in Uganda’s urban areas in 1986.
President Yoweri Museveni launched Uganda’s first HIV/AIDS control scheme in 1987. The program aggressively educated the public about how to avoid conracting HIV.
The campaign focused on the ABC approach — Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms. In addition, work at the grass-roots level also began with peer education about HIV. During this government intervention the HIV infection rate fell from a peak in 1991 of 15 percent of all Ugandan adults (both urban and rural) to around 5 percent in 2001. This rate remained stable until 2006 when an increase in HIV prevalence was detected. The prevalence rose to 6.5 percent in 2009.
Recent studies say there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in Uganda, which includes 150,000 children. The statistics show an estimated 64,000 Ugandans died from AIDS in 2009 and 1.2 million children have been orphaned.
Uganda’s increased HIV infection rate “is mainly among married couples aged 30 to 40 years,” acccording to Dr. Shaban Mugerwa, a senior medical officer at the Aids Control Program,
UNAIDS Uganda office concurs. They say the rise in HIV prevalence is accompanied by an increase in multiple concurrent partnerships. There has been a shift in the epidemic from people in single casual relationships to those in long-term stable relationships.
Heterosexuals hold the highest rates of HIV infection across Africa, including Uganda.
According to UNAIDS, of the 1.2 million Ugandans living with HIV only 200,413 are on antiretroviral treatment, only 39 percent of all those in need.
Musa Bungudu of UNAIDS, blames the Ugandan government and local charities for too much talking and not enough ‘doing’ of the grass-roots work that is needed to slow infection.
"Uganda used to be a model country in the struggle against HIV/AIDS," said Bungudu. "However, HIV/AIDS is being commercialized. We have many workshops and conferences, which are mostly held in Kampala."
Uganda receives (annually) more than $320 million for HIV/AIDS control and treatment from the USA.
Dr. Mugerwa is calling for an urgent intervention and for new communication campaigns to send out a clear message about the rise of HIV/AIDS in Uganda. He also wants to focus on male circumcision. Studies show that circumcision among African men reduces the risk of HIV infection by up to 60 percent.
According to the Uganda Ministry of Health, the Museveni government is developing a new strategy for the fight against HIV/AIDS.