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Uganda, US CDC Cooperate on Ebola

  • Andrew Green

A police officer helps a worker to put on his gloves to protect himself from virus infection, July 31, 2012 at the Mulago Hospital in Kampala.

A police officer helps a worker to put on his gloves to protect himself from virus infection, July 31, 2012 at the Mulago Hospital in Kampala.

ENTEBBE — Two more deaths were confirmed Wednesday in Uganda’s ongoing Ebola outbreak, raising the total to 16. Officials are fighting to prevent further transmission of the virus. Through a partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the country is uniquely positioned to respond quickly to suspected cases of Ebola and other hemorrhagic viruses.

Representatives from the World Health Organization say 36 possible Ebola cases have been reported in Uganda, mostly in the west of the country. At least one death occurred in Kampala, raising concerns that the virus had reached the capital. However, there is no evidence of any transmission within the city.

Virus hunters

Ebola is no stranger to Uganda. Last year a 12-year-old girl living an hour outside of Kampala died from the virus. Thirty-nine people died in a 2007 outbreak in an area bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But unlike other countries in the region that have seen similar outbreaks, Uganda has a team of virus hunters from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on hand to respond quickly to hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola.

The CDC has been working with Uganda’s Virus Research Institute in Entebbe for more than a decade. Dr. Trevor Shoemaker, a CDC epidemiologist, says they formalized the relationship two years ago by developing a fully functioning laboratory on the institute’s campus to rapidly diagnose possible cases of Ebola and other hemorrhagic viruses.

"In previous outbreaks there’s been a long period of time between the first initial suspect case presenting to the hospital and then the initial diagnosis of it either being a hemorrhagic fever. So this laboratory was set up to narrow that amount of time, to close that gap," he explains.

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CDC involvement

Shoemaker says the CDC chose to work in Uganda because of the region’s history of hemorrhagic virus outbreaks. While there are different risks at different times of the year, Uganda and much of the region have many of the necessary factors, including the animal population, necessary for an outbreak.

There are two full-time CDC staff members on site to monitor samples that arrive from around the country. Shoemaker says several other people at the neighboring Institute are also trained to assist in the event like the current outbreak.

The CDC and Uganda’s Ministry of Health have also set up six surveillance sites around the country. One is within 150 kilometers of the suspected origin of the current outbreak in Kibaale District in western Uganda. Local teams have been trained to identify potential cases, collect samples and immediately alert the lab.

In this case, ministry officials told the Cable News Network diagnosis of the virus was delayed because some patients did not seek treatment immediately or did not show traditional signs of Ebola. But Shoemaker says once a suspected case is reported, the lab is able to quickly do an initial confirmation and alert a response team to start containing the spread.

Quick response

During last year’s case, the lab was able to assemble an international response within days.

"The next day after our initial preliminary diagnostics here that told us it could be Ebola, we were out in the field the next day. And while we’re out there the confirmation testing is going on here. It’s a good example of how once we get that initial positive result, we can mobilize a team," said Shoemaker.

In the current outbreak, officials are still in the process of tracking all the people who might have come in contact with infected patients. In the meantime, the government has called on people to avoid physical contact and large crowds until the outbreak is over.