Latest Ebola outbreak spreads beyond Congo for first time with two cases confirmed in Uganda

Posted by
People crossing from Congo must go through an Ebola screening checkpoint and have their feet and hands washed with a chlorine solution.

Uganda has announced two cases of Ebola — a grandmother and a three-year-old boy — confirming that a deadly outbreak has spread for the first time beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Key points:

  • The World Health Organisation is meeting this Friday to decide whether to declare the latest outbreak an international emergency
  • Family of the two victims are currently in isolation and being monitored
  • Health workers are being attacked in conflict-ravaged eastern Congo

The Ugandan cases show the epidemic is entering a “truly frightening” phase and could kill many more people, one infectious disease specialist said.

The World Health Organisation’s emergency committee will meet on Friday to decide whether the outbreak constitutes an international emergency.

A five-year-old boy who had crossed into Uganda from Congo died late on Tuesday and his family are currently in isolation and being monitored, Uganda’s Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng, said.

The two new victims were the boy’s brother and grandmother, the Ugandan health ministry said. 

His grandfather had recently died of Ebola.

“This epidemic is in a truly frightening phase and shows no sign of stopping,” said Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, which is involved in fighting Ebola.

“We can expect and should plan for more cases in DRC and neighbouring countries,” he said. 

“There are now more deaths than any other Ebola outbreak in history, bar the West Africa epidemic of 2013-16, and there can be no doubt that the situation could escalate towards those terrible levels.”

The current Ebola epidemic began in August last year in eastern Congo and has already infected at least 2,062 people, killing 1,390 of them.

The West Africa epidemic infected 28,000 people and killed 11,300, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The viral disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids, causing haemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding.

A violent response from locals

Authorities have struggled to contain the disease partly because health workers have been repeatedly attacked in conflict-ravaged eastern Congo, the epicentre of the outbreak.

This year, the WHO has documented 174 attacks on health care workers and facilities in Congo, causing five deaths and 51 injuries, Geneva-based spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.

There is widespread public mistrust of the Congo Government and health workers from outside the region, giving rise to rumours that the disease is a ruse to try to rig elections in the area, where dozens of armed groups operate.

Other rumours accused health teams of spreading the disease. Many victims have sought treatment with traditional healers instead.

A doctor wearing heavy protective gear is being hosed down.

Uganda, which has been on high alert for a possible spread of Ebola and has already vaccinated many frontline health workers, is relatively well prepared to contain the virus.

“The current cases in Uganda will be quickly contained but the failure to stop the current Ebola epidemic in DRC is simply tragic,” Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Britain’s Reading University, said.