Hanging out with Ebola

Posted: December 7, 2007 in Blog

It’s been a bit of a strange week here. An Ebola outbreak has surfaced in the west, though curiously it became public more than three months after the first cases appeared and one week after the end of the Commonwealth meetings. There are now questions being raised over whether officials deliberately kept the outbreak quiet so it did not interfere with the Commonwealth meetings. Yesterday I met someone who has been working since August in the district where the outbreak started. Needless to say he is not happy that he was working amidst an Ebola outbreak for months without even knowing it. Luckily he did not get sick, but he knew one of the people who has died from it.

Numbers are sketchy, but it appears as though some 350 people have been suspected to have been exposed to it and at least 20 have died. One of those deaths came here in Kampala when a health worker from the west came to the city to pick up his child from school for the holidays, only to come down with the virus once he arrived (it can take anywhere from 2 to 21 days to surface once you’ve been exposed to it). So there are a few fears here in the city of whether that one case can spread, but so far the outbreak has been contained to the west.

The fact that it surfaced in the west isn’t entirely surprising. The east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which borders western Uganda, had an Ebola outbreak in September. That part of the DRC is notoriously unruly and all but ungovernable for the country’s capital Kinshasa, thousands of kilometres away and essentially cut off from the east because there are few roads. So when an outbreak surfaces in the eastern DRC it can be left to the modest international presence to work to contain it.

I was in eastern Uganda covering the flooding there when the DRC Ebola outbreak surfaced. Those floods had displaced hundreds of thousands of people and a cholera outbreak loomed as malaria cases also rose dramatically. “My God, if that Ebola crosses into Uganda we’ll be in a real shit show,” a humanitarian worker told me there while we were discussing the floods (pardon the language). He was saying that their resources were so stretched by the flooding that they could hardly handle an Ebola outbreak on the other side of the country at the same time.

It didn’t come then, but it’s building now. Health workers in parts of the west have been told to evacuate the area. A small group of health care workers in Gulu, who handled an Ebola outbreak in that area a few years ago, have actually volunteered to go into the area because they say they know how to handle it.

Here in Kampala the risk hasn’t become much more than a topic of regular conversation. Though I did meet a friend of a friend last night who said he refused to go to Mulago Hospital (where the one patient died) to have the torn ligaments in his knee examined because he was worried about Ebola there. Mostly, people have been taking precautions like washing hands regularly (some bank workers have taken to wearing gloves while handling money) and keeping an eye on any sign of a more widespread outbreak.

A couple nights ago a group of us journalists were out at a bar and took to talking about Ebola– about who had done what reporting and what everyone had been hearing. Someone said how it was interesting that often at the first sign of a big story we all hop in a car/jump on a plane to go cover it. But in this case, everyone was staying here in Kampala covering it from afar. Nobody’s too keen on hanging out with Ebola, though one cameraman offered to go to the region to film. The response from his editors? ‘No, you can’t go. We need you alive to cover the Kenyan elections later this month.’

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