World Health Organization Preparing Response to Ebola Outbreak in Uganda

14 people have died this month from an outbreak of Ebola in remote western Uganda. This bulletin was issued by the World Health Organization yesterday.

A total of 20 cases, including 14 deaths have been reported since the beginning of July 2012. The index case was identified in a family from Nyanswiga village, Nyamarunda sub-county of Kibaale district, where nine of the deaths were recorded. The deceased include a clinical officer who attended to a patient, and her four month-old child. Nine of the 14 deaths have occurred in a single household.

Laboratory confirmation was done by the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe.

Currently, two patients are hospitalized and are in stable condition. The first is a 38 year-old female who attended to her sister, the clinical officer who died. She was admitted to the hospital on 26 July 2012. The second is a 30 year-old female who participated in conducting the burial of the index case. She was admitted to the hospital on 23 July 2012. Both cases were admitted to hospital with fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Neither of the cases has so far shown bleeding, a symptom that often appears in viral haemorrhagic fever patients.

Ebola is highly contagious and really, really deadly. According to the WHO “it is one of the most virulent viral diseases known to human kind.”  It spreads easily and kills over half of people it infects.

When Ebola is confirmed, health officials need to act quickly to stop its spread. This means isolating those who may have had contact with the virus, and using proper burial techniques for the lives that have already been claimed. Most of all, this requires coordination between disparate national and international experts who have dealt with this before.

Uganda, by virtue of its geography, has seen this movie before and its response mechanisms are kicking into place.  “They have experience in these outbreaks,” says Gregory Hartl of the World Health Organization. “It is not something they have never handled before. They know what to do.”

Teams from the UN’s World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are assisting the Ugandan government in their response.  One of the most urgent tasks is tracking every person who had contact with any infected or deceased individual. WHO teams are helping the Ugandan authorities in that effort. “You must monitor friends, family or health workers who came in contact with infected people for 21 days,” says Hartl. People who are infected need to be quarantined in a hospital with proper facilities.

One of the more potentially worrying aspects of this story is that one of the infected individuals who later died made her way to Kampala, potentially infecting people along the way.  Hartl, though, stresses that for the moment there is no indication of the disease having been transmitted to anyone in Kampala.  “All of the infections are in the west of the country,” he says.

The situation is still very much in flux. For now, though, there is a sense that the authorities are responding as they should and along international guidelines that the WHO has established to deal with emergencies like these.