Fears of a New Ebola Outbreak

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When the Ebola virus resurfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year, health officials hoped to contain the outbreak to the east of the central African country, keeping it to a densely forested area accessible only through dirt roads and tiny villages. That epidemic, which was at its height earlier in the fall, saw 187 people killed and 267 more infected. But the extremely contagious disease, which has a 90% death rate, has now spread to neighboring Uganda, where a new strain of the virus has already killed 19 since September. Now, as the Ebola strain continues to sweep western Uganda, the question is how — and if — the virus can be stopped in time to prevent more mass deaths.

"We are doing everything possible to stop the spread," says Dr. Sam Zaramba, Uganda's top health official. For weeks, Uganda's health ministry released statements about a "mysterious" virus plaguing Bundibugyo, a western region on the border with the Congo. Uganda experienced an outbreak of the Marburg virus — a rare Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever — this summer, raising speculation that the disease had returned. Ebola was last in Uganda in 2000, when 425 people were infected, and over half, including a doctor, died.

But it was only last week that health authorities identified the disease as the Ebola virus after a three-month delay. The lack of rural labs to test phantom viruses resulted in the staggering delay in diagnosis. Ebola symptoms are also vague, and health officials did not suspect the virus was present until it hit its epidemic stride. Meanwhile, local populations have been burying deceased but infected relatives without protection. Usually, infected corpses are covered in plastic before they are buried.

To make matters worse, medical staff members fled treatment centers last week after six health workers were infected with the virus. Ebola is contracted through body fluids, particularly blood, putting at risk health workers who are working in centers without protective gear and proper sanitation. Zaramba says, however, that the workers were likely exposed in the time gap before the virus was correctly classified.

There is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, which has symptoms of nausea, fever and muscle pain. Humans, chimpanzees and gorillas usually die of shock when the virus attacks capillaries and blood vessel linings, draining the body of blood in a vampire-like manner. The new Ugandan strain kills patients by inducing high fever, without much loss of blood, according to Dr. Sam Okware, head of Uganda's national hemorrhagic fever task force.

The conventional wisdom was that Ebola is containable because it kills its victims faster than it can find new ones. However, conditions on the ground are now proving otherwise. While 61 cases have been identified, Zaramba says the health ministry is having difficulty detecting more cases or identifying people with whom patients had contact. And as of the weekend, the disease had spread to three new zones in Bundibugyo district. Local officials speaking on the condition of anonymity say that the death toll is almost twice that reported.

However, says Zaramba: "We believe this Ebola outbreak is not as serious as the strain we had in 2000." Still, he says, "we cannot predict what will happen." Rwanda, Uganda's southern neighbor, announced Saturday it was tightening health border controls to prevent the disease from spreading south. A team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will arrive in Uganda this week for further investigation and to advise on further containment of the disease.