This week, the Ebola virus from the Democratic Republic of the Congo reached Uganda, but there are reasons to hope that it can be held back on this side of the border, reports Olivia Acland.
On Monday morning, a family returned to Uganda on their way to a funeral from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His grandfather had died of Ebola, and his daughter had gone to the countryside a few weeks earlier to try to restore him to health.
When the family approached the Ugandan border, most suffered from high fever and diarrhea. They stopped at a health clinic and were isolated and waiting for tests. But after dark, six family members, including a five-year-old boy, left the clinic and climbed onto a lonely and poorly police road to Uganda. A few days later, both the boy and his grandmother had died.
Health officials have long feared that this Ebola virus outbreak could cross the porous border into Uganda. The border is over 800 km long and many of the crossings are informal ̵
The Ebola Outbreak in Five Graphics
One of the main reasons why it was so difficult to stem the disease in DR Congo is its spread in a conflict zone. About 120 armed groups hide in the jungle-covered hills in the east of the country and regularly jump out of the bush to abduct or rape civilians. They make money by smuggling minerals such as gold and coltan used in cell phone batteries or by plundering villages and stealing cattle.
To make matters worse, the local population has little faith in the authorities and their responsiveness. Health workers often move with armed escorts, causing suspicion. And when impoverished villagers see fleets of four people tearing down their streets, they speak of "Ebola business" and are jealous of the money flowing into the answer.
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Last month I visited Butembo in the north – Eastern DR Congo – The disease-stricken region has become known as the "Ebola Zone". The people there told me that they believe the disease was purposely bought into the area so foreigners could make money from it.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, there have been more than 100 attacks on health professionals and Ebola treatment centers. Some were spontaneous, fueled by mistrust and jealousy. Others, such as the burning of treatment centers, were planned and organized by rebel groups. Your goal and agenda are unknown.
While I was in Butembo, I visited an Ebola treatment center and talked to a patient from the other side of a plastic window. She told me she was there, hooked up to a drop, attacked as rebels, but too weak to escape. She said she heard her call, "Get the matches!" and then had felt heat from the flame. She lay there thinking she would die until a nurse who had fled returned about 40 minutes later to rescue her. Fortunately, the tents in which the patients stayed were spared and most of the center has since been rescued.
Currently, one in four Ebola sufferers in DR Congo have not turned up in treatment facilities. This is partly due to mistrust and partly to the fear of attacking the disease and the rebels.
DR Congo may have problems fighting the spread of disease. However, when the dreaded announcement that the virus had spread across the border, Uganda responded quickly – 4,700 employees in 165 hospitals have already been vaccinated. Nearby marketplaces have been closed. Religious meetings were suspended. People try not to touch each other and handshakes have turned into elbow or wave waves.
In reality, it takes more than a sweaty handshake until the disease spreads. An Ebola patient can only transmit the virus if his fluids pass through broken skin, mouth, nose, eyes or other openings in another's body. Because the disease causes diarrhea and causes you to sweat, bleed and vomit, the most vulnerable individuals are by far the ones who take care of the sick.
In Uganda, the fight against Ebola is determined by the government's ability to win the trust of the people. The country is not torn like its fickle neighbor and has a more robust health system. At least for now, there is hope that the disease will be contained in Uganda.
Olivia Acland is DR Congo Correspondent for the Economist
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