The Ebola outbreak that has plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the last 10 months has now crossed the border into Uganda, taking its first life in the country on Tuesday night and another on Wednesday night, Reuters reported.
The first victim was a 5-year-old Congolese boy, who crossed through the Bwera border post with several family members on June 9, the World Health Organization said. The boy was taken to Kagando Mission Hospital after vomiting blood, one of the symptoms of the virus, before being moved to the Bwera Ebola Treatment Unit near the border in the Kasese district.
The second victim was the boy's 50-year-old grandmother, and the boy's younger brother, 3, is currently in isolation. Ugandan officials said there are seven others suspected of contracting the disease, who are believed to have come into contact with at least 50 people, the government said.
“The ministry of health and WHO have dispatched a rapid response team to Kasese to identify other people who may be at risk,” WHO stated.
The health ministry in the DRC said about a dozen of the boy’s family members had exhibited symptoms of the virus, having contracted it from another sick family member. Instead of being quarantined, they were told to wait until they could be transported to an Ebola treatment center in Beni, but only half of the infected family members followed the instructions. The others found their way into Uganda.
Officials first confirmed the outbreak of the disease within the Congo in August 2018. Health workers and the government have been battling to contain the outbreak since.
Ebola is highly contagious and is contracted through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluid through broken skin, the mouth, or nose. The disease’s initial symptoms include fever, extreme weakness, muscle pain, and sore throats, but become more severe, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and internal and external bleeding. According to the BBC, most people succumb to Ebola due to dehydration or multiple organ failure.
Concerned that the virus would extend its reach into neighboring countries, Uganda implemented preventive measures months ago, vaccinating thousands of health care workers.
The vaccine is the main source of hope for preventing Ebola’s spread at this time. Though still in its experimental phase, the vaccine has proven to be effective and is being implemented widely. Over 130,000 doses of the vaccine have been given out, with 4,700 going to health workers. WHO will send another 3,500 doses to treat those who have been in contact with the infected.
The Ugandan government has also been screening people traveling into the country with the hope of keeping the disease at bay. Officials say that many Congolese, however, have been crossing the border through unofficial routes, some wading through the Lubiriha River, for example, to evade medical screening.
“Many people are evading [border] customs and using small footpaths and it is difficult for us to follow the contacts,” Dr. Dominique Kabongo, coordinator of Ebola response teams in Kasindi, DRC, said.
Uganda Health Minister Jane Aceng said that authorities are working on both sides of the border to make those paths inaccessible.
Most people traveling from the Congo into neighboring countries don’t understand, or believe in, the danger of the spreading virus, according to Ugandan Red Cross official Francis Tumwine. Congolese believe that witchcraft is the cause of the mass deaths, he said.
“We are not sure if there’s Ebola in Congo,” Muhindo Kaongezekela, a Congolese trader, told the Associated Press.“In Congo, if they find you with a headache, they take you to the hospital and later say they died of Ebola.”
The Ugandan government has also suspended large gatherings, including prayers and market days, with the latter normally pulling in crowds as large at 20,000 in Kasese, to limit exposure to the virus.
The WHO has declared on two occasions that the DRC’s ongoing Ebola crisis is not a global health emergency, and have not yet advocated for travel restrictions. However, the decision could change if the virus begins to affect a large number of Ugandans as one of the major criteria for WHO to declare a global health emergency is the international spread of a highly contagious disease. Due to the disease moving across the border, the WHO expert committee has been notified that another meeting could take place soon to reevaluate the outbreak’s emergency status.