Africa on alert over Uganda Ebola outbreak

Ebola treatment centre

A health worker wearing protective gear at an Ebola treatment facility.

Photo credit: File

Brazzaville,

African countries are on alert, strengthening screening and surveillance, after an outbreak of a relatively rare strain of Ebola virus in Uganda earlier this week.

The East African country had reported seven confirmed cases and one death by Thursday.

The variant, called the Sudan strain, is a relatively rare and does not have an approved vaccine. It has been a decade since this strain was first reported globally.

Henry Kyobe, incidence commander with Uganda's ministry of Health, says the epidemic "appears to have started around the beginning of September."

All the reported seven cases have been confirmed to have contracted one of the six species of the Ebola virus genus. 

Forty-three contacts have been identified and 10 people suspected to have caught the virus are receiving treatment at the regional referral hospital in Mubende, where the disease was confirmed earlier this week.

It is the first time Kampala has detected the Sudan strain since 2012. Ebola is a severe, often fatal illness affecting humans and other primates.

It has six different strains, three of which— Bundibugyo, Sudan, and Zaire— have previously caused large outbreaks.

Case fatality rates of the Sudan strain have varied from 41 percent to 100 percent in past outbreaks, according to the World Health Organisation.

Current evidence shows that the ERVEBO vaccine, which is highly effective against the Zaire Ebola virus, does not provide cross-protection against the Sudan variant.

Mubende is in the central region of Uganda and is about a two-hour drive from the capital of Kampala. It sits along a busy road leading to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has long been plagued by the virus.

There are gold mines in the area, which attract people from different parts of Uganda, as well as other countries. The mobile nature of the population in Mubende increases the risk of the possible spread of the virus, warned the WHO.

The UN health agency has deployed a technical team to the Mubende district. In addition, five international experts will be deployed, with numbers increasing if needed, according to the WHO.

"Africa's stronger home-grown emergency readiness is proving ever more crucial in tackling outbreaks such as Ebola," said Abdou Salam Gueye, the regional emergency director with the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

Due to Uganda's previous outbreaks and the threat of importation of cases from the neighbouring DRC, which has fought several outbreaks, other neighbouring countries have intensified their surveillance to prevent transmission of the virus.

Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya’s Health Cabinet secretary says critical personnel have been deployed at the Ugandan border in western Kenya to help identify potential cases.

Tanzanian health authorities on Wednesday said they had activated surveillance teams in high-risk regions of Kagera, Mwanza, Arusha, Mara, Kigoma, and Dar es Salaam, Aifello Sichalwe, the chief medical officer in the Ministry of Health, told Xinhua over the phone.

The South Sudanese government said Tuesday it was stepping up vigilance along its borders with Uganda and DRC.

Victoria Anib Majur, the undersecretary in the South Sudanese Ministry of Health, advised communities living along the borders to report case of suspected Ebola to health authorities.

The Africa CDC on Wednesday also urged neighboring and affected districts in Uganda to enhance their disease surveillance and laboratory testing, and implement appropriate infection prevention and control measures.

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