Inadequate public awareness, illegal entry points complicate Uganda’s response to Ebola

Early this month, Uganda declared an Ebola-Outbreak in Kasese after three people Kasese tested positive to the viral disease.  The trio later succumbed to the monstrous disease.

The three Ebola victims had just returned from the Democratic of Congo, where an outbreak was announced in August 2018 at Mangina in North Kivu Province, about fifty kilometers from the Uganda-Congo Border in Mpondwe in Kasese.

Uganda announced an Ebola alert and 24-hour surveillance to prevent any spill into the country. URN traces to find out how and where Uganda lost the battle to prevent the disease from spilling into the country and how the index case got into contact with more than 100 people.

In the wake of the outbreak, our reporter visited Mpondwe town in Kasese district where the viral disease had been reported. Our reporter traveled to Kasese aboard a coach belonging to Link Buses. There was no mention of Ebola nor where there any write-ups to sensitise travelers about the epidemic on this more than 400-kilometer journey.

At Mpondwe our reporter delved into casual conversations with the residents to access their awareness about the epidemic. While there are those that took the disease seriously, a huge number mostly Congolese nationals considered the reported outbreak in DRC a hoax by government meant to scare them from mobilizing against it.

Officials that URN spoke in Bwera attribute the Ebola spill over to Uganda to such an attitude driven by ignorance and the porous border with a myriad of entry points.  They say that unmanned borders, fatigue those on the ground and the lack of sufficient public awareness exposes Uganda to the Ebola epidemic.

Uganda has been on Ebola alert for almost 11 months. According to the Health Ministry, by the time the three cases in Kasese were confirmed, more than Shillings 5 trillion had been spent on vaccinating front line health workers in places like Bwera hospital, sensitization campaigns where health workers and the general population were educated about Ebola and how to identify it.

The sensitization involved printing posters and running adverts on radio stations. The funds were also spent on the allowances of health workers, procurement of materials like gloves and detergent and construction of Ebola Treatment Units.

Kasese district has six Ebola check points where screening takes place including two points at Mpondwe customs, at Mirami, Kisolholho in Karambi Sub County, Kithoma and Kanyatsi in Kitholhu Sub County.  At these points, people entering Uganda are required to wash their hands and their temperatures taken.

However, there are also several unmanned entry points. There are eight feeder roads that people use to get to and fro Uganda in between two screening points at Mpondwe-Customs border, which are just about 500 meters apart.

Our reporter sat at one of the feeder roads for about twenty minutes and saw two people strolling from DRC into Uganda carrying bags. Between Mpondwe market at the border with DRC and Bwera hospital, there are more than 12 entry points into Uganda.

“If we have counted eight illegal points in less than a kilometer’s space, how many other illegal points do you think are there where there are more than five kilometres from an official screening point?” our guide wondered.

He says it is the movements along these feeder roads between Ugandans and Congolese that makes a section of Ugandans at the border to believe that the Ebola-scourge is a government creation to cause fear among the population.

Our reporter asked the Mpondwe-Lhubiriha Town Council LC III chairperson, Selevest Mapoze on the scale of Uganda’s safety against Ebola with all the innumerable entry points.

“We have six designated points but we may not identify the private [entry points], people have so many routes that they use to sneak in,” Mapoze said.

Ministry of Health officials receiving Ebola response supplies from Uganda Cares

Pedson Buthalha, the Administrator Bwera General hospital, says two health workers and other people at the health facility were exposed to the 50-year-old Ebola patient because of failure to associate her symptoms with those of Ebola. The woman was admitted to the hospital with headache, fever, abdominal and muscle pain.

Rev Solomon Badaaki, the manager Messiah radio, says that very little public awareness took place over radio stations. He says community radio stations like Messiah only received money to play two spot messages in 2018 and haven’t been approached this year.

Up to now, Rev Badaaki says,  people still don’t know much about Ebola even after the three confirmed cases due to a belief by some that Ebola is a curse from God and have taken to prayers instead of embracing the recommended health practices like hand washing.

Following the confirmation of Ebola in Kasese, local leaders and residents are now rallying together as a community to keep safe. Hand washing has been introduced at hotels and schools in Bwera.

Lt. Joe Walusimbi, the Kasese Resident District Commissioner, who is also the head of the surveillance unit in the district, says that the confirmation of the three cases was a lesson for everyone and changes are being made to stop it from occurring again.

The Health Ministry has also gone ahead to vaccinate all the one hundred contacts and health workers at Bwera and Kagando hospitals using the Ebola rV5V vaccine that is believed to be 97 percent effective in protecting one against Ebola.

The Ministry has also vaccinated high risk persons like police officers and community leaders who are likely to come into contact with persons suffering from Ebola.  The transport sector has also been brought on board.

The Health Ministry has placed posters at bus offices to educate the public about Ebola. They are also in the process of creating isolation facilities at bus terminals where suspected cases can be kept after screening. Our reporter asked Dr. Henry Mwebesa, the Director General Ministry of Health whether they have put in place sufficient measures to keep Ugandans safe.

“We have been in a state of preparedness for a very longtime. We have teams in all high risk districts working tirelessly to make sure no Ebola case enters undetected. Our teams were able to quickly trace the family of six which stopped the disease from spreading. We are on high alert,” he said.

Only time will tell whether Uganda has learnt from its past mistake with the persistent clashes in DRC which continue forcing Congolese into Uganda.