Ebola: The Return of a Killer

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The price of community in northern Uganda may be fatal. It is traditional at funerals in the rugged and remote north for mourners to show their solidarity by washing their hands in the same bowl of water, and that's what they did at the funeral in September of Ester Awete, who died of an unexplained fever. Health workers now believe it was that ritual cleansing that launched the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. The hemorrhagic fever, which kills its victims within days of its onset, is transmitted via contact with any of the body fluids of an infected person. It's killed some 39 people over the past month, and right now 10 new cases of infection are reported daily.

Health workers in the Gulu and Kitgum districts are quarantining anyone manifesting the flu symptoms, diarrhea and vomiting that mark the onset of the disease, and have banned the communal cleansing ritual at the end of funerals. It's heartbreaking work for the medical personnel because the disease can't be treated, only contained. And the squalid refugee camps of northern Uganda — established to house people fleeing attacks by a sociopathic guerrilla movement calling itself the Lord's Resistance Army — are a fertile breeding ground, given their poor sanitation. Whereas a previous outbreak in the Congo in 1995 was ultimately contained, health officials are concerned that it could spread more rapidly in the Ugandan region, where there is much more frequent movement of people, particularly refugees from the LRA. Indeed, guerrilla attacks since the current outbreak have not only spread refugees far and wide, they've also involved the kidnapping of a number of potentially infected people, prompting fears that the initial attempts to quarantine victims in the Gulu and Kitgum districts may have come too late to stop the virus from spreading. Ironically, their best hope lies in the fact that Ebola kills its victims quickly.

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