Scores of people are medically isolated after outbreak 40 miles from Kampala, months after a separate strain killed at least 16
Scores of people have been medically isolated to prevent the spread of a new outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, the scene of increasingly regular outbreaks of deadly haemorrhagic fevers that have left health officials grappling for answers.
The cluster of Ebola cases was confirmed on Wednesday in a district 40 miles (60km) from the capital, Kampala, and comes roughly a month after Uganda declared itself free of the disease following an earlier outbreak in a remote district in the west of the country. Last month at least five people in south-west Uganda were killed by Marburg, a haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola.
The latest Ebola outbreak, officials say, is of the Sudan strain of the virus and not linked to the previous one, of the Congo variety, which killed at least 16 people between July and August in the western district of Kibaale. At least three people have died in the latest outbreak, and up to 15 are being monitored for signs of the disease, officials said. They advised against panic after it was revealed that two possible Ebola patients had since checked into Kampala's main referral hospital.
"The ministry of health once again calls upon the public to stay calm as all possible measures are being undertaken to control the situation," Christine Ondoa, Uganda's health minister, said.
Multiple outbreaks have occurred over the years, and news of the disease can cause patients to flee hospitals to avoid infection. In 2000, in one of the world's worst Ebola outbreaks, the virus infected 425 Ugandans and killed more than half of them in the north of the country. Another outbreak in 2007 killed 37 people in Bundibugyo, a remote district close to the Congolese border.
Ebola is highly infectious and kills quickly.
Denis Lwamafa, the director general of health services in Uganda's ministry of health, suggested that there were more reported cases of Ebola in Uganda than in other countries because its "diagnostic capability" had increased. But a World Health Organisation (WHO) official in Kampala said there were progressively more cases of Ebola because of an increase in "the interaction between man and the forests".
Investigators believe the first victim of Ebola in any outbreak acquires the disease after coming into contact with a "reservoir" – an infected animal, often a monkey.
"Whenever there is contact between man and the reservoir of Ebola then you get the first case," said Miriam Nanyunja of the WHO.
Ebola was first reported in 1976 in Congo and is named after the river where it was recognised. There is no cure or vaccine for it. Ebola is "characterised by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat and weakness, followed by diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients," according to a factsheet by the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions. During communal funerals, for example, when the bereaved come into contact with an Ebola victim, the virus can be contracted, officials said, warning against unnecessary contact with suspected cases of Ebola.
Nanyunja of the WHO said Ugandans near the centre of the Ebola outbreak should practise what she called "social distancing", avoiding handshakes and similar contact.