NAIROBI, Kenya — An outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, brought on by a strain for which there is no such thing as a approved vaccine or drug treatment, is fanning fears across East Africa, because the authorities race to contain the virus that has already caused 35 confirmed infections and 7 deaths.
Scientists and health officials at the moment are pushing to start out clinical trials for 2 experimental vaccines to guard against this strain, which originated in Sudan in 1976. Although there are relatively latest and powerful Ebola vaccines, they don’t protect against the Sudan strain — complicating efforts to quickly stamp out the disease before it overburdens the nation’s fragile health care system.
In central Uganda, where the cases were reported, at the least six medical employees have contracted the virus, leading a few of their peers to request transfer elsewhere. Parents, concerned their children will catch the highly contagious virus, are withdrawing them from schools. And in a nation that has faced multiple Ebola outbreaks because it reported its first case in 2000, worries persist that one other fast-spreading virus could precipitate restrictions that might devastate an economy still reeling from coronavirus shutdowns.
“The entire situation gives me a variety of worry,” Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the World Health Organization’s representative to Uganda, said in a phone interview.
With the virus spreading to a fourth district on Friday and affecting an area covering a radius of greater than 75 miles, “we’re at a drawback,” he said.
Ebola is a highly contagious disease that’s transmitted through contact with sick or dead people or animals, causing fever, fatigue, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding. The 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa was the deadliest Ebola epidemic, killing greater than 11,300 people, followed by the 2018 outbreak within the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed 2,280 people.
Up to now, Ugandan officials have ruled out issuing stay-at-home orders or curfews, or restricting movement in schools, markets or houses of worship.
“There isn’t a need for anxiety, panic, restriction of movements or unnecessary closure of public places,” President Yoweri Museveni said after a televised speech this week. Mr. Museveni, who introduced stringent lockdowns in the course of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago, said his nation had the flexibility to bring the Ebola virus to heel.
Uganda can also be working with neighboring countries, including Rwanda and Kenya, to step up vigilance at land borders and at airports.
The most recent outbreak in Uganda became public on Sept. 20, when health officials announced they’d confirmed a case in a 24-year-old man who had been admitted to a hospital within the Mubende district, about 90 miles from the capital, Kampala.
The patient had developed symptoms — including high fever and bleeding within the eyes — as early as Sept. 11, and had traveled to multiple clinics searching for assistance. He was eventually isolated and hospitalized on Sept. 15, but died five days later.
In his televised address, Mr. Museveni said the patient had said individuals with similar symptoms from his village had also died.
The delay in identifying and tracing the primary human case, together with the undeniable fact that it was reported in a district abutting a key highway, has raised the concerns that the virus has spread to major urban centers and neighboring countries. The W.H.O. has said there have been at the least 18 more probable deaths and 19 more infections linked to the present outbreak.
The Sudan strain of the virus was last detected by Uganda in 2012. Those infected cannot spread the virus until symptoms appear, which might come after an incubation period starting from two to 21 days.
Existing vaccines — just like the injectable vaccine Ervebo, which proved successful in tackling the Zaire strain within the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo — don’t protect against the Sudan strain.
But experts hope that may soon change.
Mr. Yonas said at the least six vaccine candidates were at different phases of development that may possibly guard against the Sudan strain. Two of those vaccines could proceed to a clinical trial in Uganda in the approaching weeks after facing regulatory and ethics reviews from the Ugandan government.
The 2 vaccines more likely to go ahead are being developed by the Washington-based Sabin Vaccine Institute and the University of Oxford. If approved, the single-dose Sabin vaccine would probably be the primary in line for trial. As latest evidence emerges on the remaining vaccine candidates, the W.H.O. said it might work with an independent group of experts to assist evaluate their suitability.
For now, health officials and multiple nongovernmental organizations are responding to the crisis by training medical employees, establishing latest isolation units and facilitating more laboratories for testing.
Officials have also began multiple outreach campaigns to teach the general public on the right way to protect themselves, not stigmatize the infected and report those showing symptoms, said Oluma Jacob, a health adviser with Medical Teams International, an aid group responding to the outbreak.
This was done, he said, because “there was fear and a variety of panic in the neighborhood” when the cases were first reported in central Uganda.
That panic was evident amongst parents in Mubende district, where the primary case was detected.
Nkwesiga Maxim, the principal of St. Kizito Madudu Roman Catholic Primary School in Mubende, said that greater than half of the college’s students had not been attending classes.
“Now we have an excessive amount of fear,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by frontline medical experts, who say the shortage of proper compensation and protection — particularly for medical interns — was putting their lives in danger. The six medical experts who were infected included 4 doctors, an anesthesiologist and a medical student, Mr. Museveni said. On Saturday, Uganda’s health minister announced that one among the doctors had died.
Luswata Herbert, the secretary general of the Uganda Medical Association, said that if the federal government didn’t treatment the situation quickly, “medical experts will refuse to take care of patients because they fear for his or her lives and their rights.”
Musinguzi Blanshe contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda.