I returned from a week of travel yesterday to news of an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Uganda that has claimed 14 lives in a village in Kibaale district, which is 140 miles or about 3 hours’ drive from Kampala. The situation in Kampala is tense, since one of the victims, a health care worker from the district, was transferred to Mulago Hospital, the national referral hospital in Kampala across the street from the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) where she subsequently died. Her sister was also admitted to Mulago hospital, where she is stable.
IDI has an Outreach program and several ongoing projects in Kibaale district and it happens that my visit last week was to Kibaale, to assess the readiness of some of IDI’s Outreach sites for participating in clinical trials. At the time I was there we heard about an unknown infectious disease in the area that did not respond to antibiotics and that had claimed several lives, and local health workers were worried. The district was waiting for results from samples tested at the Uganda Virus Research Institute to identify the disease. Little did we know that it was Ebola virus.
IDI has taken immediate steps to provide relief and urgent protection of health workers in Kibaale with donation exceeding $7,500 in medical supplies, protective clothing and food. Due to intermittent power supply, it is hard to refrigerate food so locals usually buy fresh food daily in the markets; however public gatherings including markets have been banned in the region to prevent spread of disease and food supplies are running low. IDI took on a similar role in a previous Ebola outbreak in 2007 by providing protective gear to Mulago Hospital and assistance in setting up an isolation ward.
I visited Kagadi District Hospital and toured the newly refurbished operating theater and laboratory, which are well equipped and staffed but suffer from frequent power outages. Most of the roads in the district are murram, or a dirt road, which makes traveling slow, and for most local people bicycle or walking are the only forms of transport. For many villagers it can take one hour or more to reach the nearest health center. One of the projects being implemented by IDI is the Saving Mothers Giving Life Project. This is a US funded inter agency project supporting several implementing partners in Uganda and Zambia to reduce maternal and new born deaths by 50% within I year in Kibaale, where Kagadi District Hospital is located. Under this project a new ambulance service has recently been introduced which has greatly improved speed of access to emergency care, mainly for mothers with complications in childbirth. The ambulance drivers we spoke with were very anxious about the Ebola outbreak, since as first responders they are vulnerable to exposure.
The Ugandan Ministry of Health, World Health organization (WHO) and US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) all have expert teams on the ground in Kibaale and have issued guidance on how to avoid transmission of Ebola and what symptoms to watch for; Ebola is deadly and there is no cure or vaccine. Rest assured, I feel fine and am very unlikely to be exposed; I always carry hand sanitizer with me. At IDI security checks and hand washing stations have been set up at the building entrances to minimize any risk of infection. Hopefully the initial outbreak has been contained and no more lives will be lost.