The African country of Uganda is in the grips of a terrible outbreak of Ebola — of a strain against which we have no treatment.
Recording 63 probable or confirmed cases of infection and 29 probable or confirmed deaths, Uganda is in the midst of its largest Ebola outbreak to date. Particularly worrying is that testing has revealed that the outbreak is caused by the Sudan strain of the virus, against which we have no effective treatment or vaccines.
Ebola is a pretty terrifying disease. Its first symptoms are unassuming, including headaches and fever, but in the later stages, patients experience widespread internal bleeding. Unsurprisingly, it has a mortality rate of over 50%. The only silver lining is that Ebola only spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, so it can’t spread around as fast or uncontrollably as Covid-19. However, this also leaves individuals that work directly with other people, and healthcare workers in particular, exposed to the virus. People caring for infected family members are also vulnerable.
In a bad spot
The first Ebola cases were recorded in the country’s Mubende district, in a community of people living around a gold mine. Traders of gold are highly mobile, particularly as they ply their trade along a local highway running from Kampala (the country’s capital) to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Due to the robust connections between Kampala and the world, as well as the high mobility of the population at the core of the outbreak, other countries have already started implementing surveillance measures against the virus. The United States is redirecting travel from Uganda to five airports where passengers are screened for Ebola and has enacted a 21-day monitoring period for each individual to check for any developing symptoms. Kenya, Tanzania, and other countries bordering Uganda are also taking steps to prevent the virus from crossing their borders.
This international concern is primarily driven by the fact that Uganda’s outbreak is caused by the Sudan strain, against which there is no approved vaccine or treatment. Two potential vaccine candidates are under development by GlaxoSmithKline and Oxford. According to the World Health Organization, both will be deployed to Uganda within two weeks in a bid to improve the situation; but the truth of the matter is that we don’t yet know if these will work.
Jane Aceng, Uganda’s health secretary, explains that the virus has had a chance to establish a foothold in the area as locals at first believed that the symptoms were caused by witchcraft, and as such didn’t seek medical care. After getting wind of the situation on the ground, the government stepped in and helped educate people about Ebola.
So far, four of the victims of the outbreak have been health workers, says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO).
There have been several Ebola outbreaks in this part of Africa, including in Uganda’s neighbor, the DRC, but these were caused by the Zaire strain of the virus. By and large, they’ve been kept under control through the use of vaccines, treatment campaigns, and other health measures. Two vaccine types and one monoclonal antibody treatment were approved against that strain.
Aceng added that the country has repeatedly called on the international community to provide aid in the shape of specialists and personal protective equipment. Its ability to contain the outbreak is currently depleted as the country is also working to contain or prevent the resurgence of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and its health sector is still reeling from the aftermath of the pandemic.