By Fredrick Nzwili*
As Congolese churches, the United Nations and international medical organizations continued to move to stop the spread of a 40-month Ebola virus epidemic, new cases have been confirmed in Uganda, igniting fears that the deadly disease is on the march.
On 13 June, Uganda’s Ministry of Health reported three cases in people, two of whom have died. The most recent death was of a 50-year-old grandmother who had travelled to Uganda from Democratic Republic of Congo on 10 June.
“The outbreak is real and we urge all residents of Uganda to remain vigilant and report any suspected cases to the nearest health facility,” Dr Aceng Jane Ruth, minister of health said in a statement on 13 June.
The cases – the first in Uganda - follow numerous warnings that the epidemic could march across the international borders.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, church-based organizations have been countering the advancement of the epidemic by spreading the prevention messages on hygiene methods such as washing hands, not exchanging hand greetings in church and offering psycho-social support.
In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Roman Catholics have suspended key worship rites that require physical contact. In the recent outbreak, churches in the western region had suspended sacraments include baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick and the sacrament of order (ordination).
In a country where superstition and rumours play a big role, sources say the church is the most trusted institution. Churches have produced prevention songs for local broadcasts, organized talks, speeches and announcements about the epidemic in church services. Stewards have been moving door-to-door spreading the message of prevention.
But rebel action is pushing back the work of the churches and other international organizations who are moving medical interventions. They have attacked medical teams and looted health centres.
“The attacks by the militiamen are a major problem. Anyone trying to help in the Ebola crisis does not feel safe,” said Josue’ Bulambo Lembe Lembe of the Church of Christ in Congo.
According to the World Health Organization, cases in DRC have hit 2,000 with over 1,200 deaths recorded from among the list.
With the new cases in Uganda, the two countries have joined to step up surveillance and screening in the common border points, including the non-official ones. The two countries have also agreed to share promptly information about the epidemic, including the cross border movement of patients.
Five Ebola patients were, on 13 June, repatriated to the Democratic Republic of Congo where they can access therapeutic treatment, as well as family support from relatives, according to the Ministry of Health in Uganda.
“Uganda remains in Ebola response mode to follow up to 27 contacts of the deceased case and the three suspected casse,” said the minister.
Meanwhile, South Sudan, which also neighbours the Democratic Republic of Congo, has announced it is stepping up surveillance at its border points. Africa’s newest nation remains at great risk due to the ongoing conflict.
WCC work on Health and Healing
*Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.