By Paul Bushariza
It is just over 10 years since Uganda suffered its first Ebola outbreak. At the time Uganda troops had just been withdrawn from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a huge contingent was camped at Aswa Ranch in northern Uganda.
This and the fact that the outbreak was first registered around that area led to the suggestion that some soldiers may have come across the border with the hemorrhagic fever. I am not aware that attempts to find patient zero – the initial patient, were successful.
Last week, the Government confirmed that the virus had resurfaced in western Uganda with a high concentration of cases in Kibaale district. The knee jerk reaction was to attribute the outbreak to the huge influx of refugees fleeing fighting in north Kivu province in the DRC, last month. But the largest influx of refugees was in Kisoro, more than 200km south of Kagadi, where at last count all but one of the country’s 25 isolated patients were registered.
Suspicion has shifted to the Kibaale forest which has a high concentration of primates and birds, which act as transmitters of the virus. The last outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic fever was recorded in Bundibugyo in 2007. The disease takes its name from the River Ebola in northern DRC, where the disease’s fi rst recorded outbreak was identified in 1976.
I covered the first Ebola outbreak in northern Uganda and have cursorily followed how the country handled the subsequent outbreak in Bundibugyo and the current one, the response time is nothing but laudable.
In 2000, it took some time before the health ministry could cobble a response, but when they did, it was done with an openness and efficiency, improving with every day that past.
The more than 400 infections that were recorded during that incident could have been very many were it not for health ministry’s response at the time. Our experience with HIV/AIDS helped. Uganda doesn’t need another epidemic.
Our health system is creaking under the weight of such preventable diseases as diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria. But now like it or not we share borders with a country with no health system to speak of, but which, with its largely uninhabited jungle, is a petri dish for any number of tropical diseases, some of which, God knows, have not been identified by modern medicine.
It does not help matters that the areas bordering us are in perpetual turmoil necessitating large uncoordinated movements of people, enough of whom find their way across our borders.
The truth is the DRC is a security risk to us in more ways than just rebels straining at the bits to get at Kampala.
At the beginning of this century, the George W. Bush’s administration commissioned a study on AIDS/HIV among other things it examined the effect of a runway HIV/AIDS epidemic on the US national security.
The report has not been publically released but it prompted the Bush administration to channel billions of dollars at providing ARVs to up to two million AIDS patients in Africa, prevent seven million new infections and provide support to another 10 million sufferers by 2010.
Borrowing a leaf, if the worst comes to the worst, it would be in Uganda’s national interest in the not so distant future to start providing health services in eastern Congo, as the alternative barring Congolese from crossing into Uganda or Ugandans into to Congo is impractical.
Clearly Kinshasa seems unlikely to extend much needed social services to eastern Congo in any meaningful way soon, while the risk to our citizens is a near and present danger.
Can we afford it? Well the alternative – massive epidemics sweeping from western Uganda across the country, is a proposition more expensive than a few drugs and community health initiatives in the bordering territories.