The president of Uganda is calling on people in the East African country to avoid physical contact, including handshaking and kissing, to prevent the spread of the deadly and highly contagious Ebola virus that is believed to have killed 14 people in the last few weeks.
The disease has no known cure or vaccine and some strains can kill up to 90 percent of victims within days. Ugandans are so fearful of the disease that residents in Kibaale province where the outbreak was reported said that people immediately fled the hospital after hearing patients with Ebola were there.
In a nationally televised speech today, President Yoweri Museveni said health officials are working to contain the disease to the rural district where the outbreak was confirmed Saturday, but at least one of the suspected victims was taken to a hospital in the capital city of Kampala. Now, nearly two dozen medical workers at Mulago Hospital are being held in isolation.
“We have asked people in the whole country to be careful and aware of those who present with symptoms. We have informed health facilities of the right way to respond,” said Dr. Anthony Mbonye at Uganda’s Ministry of Health.
Mbonye said no other patients at Mulago Hospital in Kampala are at risk, and he is optimistic the outbreak in the Kibaale district 125 miles west of the capital city can be contained soon.
“I have hope because since Friday we have not had any new suspected cases of Ebola,” he said.
However, another health official from the affected district told the Associated Press up to six more patients suspected to have Ebola have been admitted to a hospital there and said people in other villages are reporting possible Ebola infections.
Mbonye said people are frightened because many illnesses that are common in the region, such as malaria, have the same symptoms as Ebola. He said health officials have to balance the need to inform the public while not wanting to cause unnecessary panic. In Kibaale, schools are closed and social gatherings have been cancelled.
Experts from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are in Uganda to advise health officials responding to the outbreak.
People infected with Ebola usually have flu-like symptoms at first. They can then begin bleeding internally and externally as their vital organs shut down.
Ebola was named for the river near where it was first reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. Scientists believe an Ebola outbreak usually begins when a human contracts the disease from an infected animal.
The CDC operates a laboratory in Uganda where a team of scientists is studying Ebola and other deadly viruses in Africa. In the past couple of years, U.S. defense officials expressed concern that terrorists could try to use Ebola as a biological weapon. The threat posed by Ebola and other little understood viral diseases has been dramatized by best-selling books such as “The Hot Point” and Hollywood movies like “Outbreak” and “Contagion.”
This is the third outbreak of Ebola in Uganda since 2000 when 224 people were killed. At least 42 people were killed in another outbreak in 2007, and there was a single confirmed case in 2011.