Uganda is vaccinating against the Ebola virus spreading in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the outbreak fueled by conflict has left at least 189 people dead.
No cases have been reported in Uganda so far, but health care workers in high-risk districts bordering the Congo are getting vaccinated as a precaution, health officials said.
“In vaccinating frontline health workers against Ebola, even before Uganda detects a single case, health authorities are being cautious having learned bitter lessons from previous outbreaks,” the World Health Organization said.
While the vaccine is not available for public use and is considered experimental, it’s being handed out under a compassionate use program, the WHO said. The vaccine was given to more than 16,000 volunteers in Africa, Europe and the United States in 2015, and was found to be effective against the Ebola virus.
Uganda shares a border with Congo, and both nations experience a robust movement of people between them as a result of trade and the region’s high population.
Aid workers attacked by armed groups
Despite vaccination efforts in eastern Congo, Ebola is still spreading in the region as a conflict between militant groups battling for control and government forces hamper access to some of the hardest-hit areas.
The lack of security has complicated efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak as humanitarian workers helping to fight the outbreak have come under attack by armed groups.
More than 1 million people live in the affected districts of Beni, Mabalako, Oicha, and Mambasa, according to Care International. It said the clashes not only pose serious security threats to the residents but they also affect aid agencies’ ability to respond to the outbreak.
“Some communities are losing hope and feeling exhausted after several years of violence. That, combined with the lack of proper awareness among the society, mean that many refuse to even accept that there is a disease such as Ebola,” said Dr. Eric Mukama, CARE’s health specialist in Beni.
Last month, deadly violence in Congo’s North Kivu province — the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak — left at least 12 people dead.
Since the latest outbreak started in August, there have been 305 reported cases of Ebola in Congo’s Ituri and North Kivu provinces, according to the WHO. That number includes the 189 people killed.
It said the risk of the outbreak spreading to other provinces and neighboring countries remains high. Congo shares borders with nine nations, and the United Nations fears the Ebola epidemic could spread to South Sudan as well due to the influx of Congolese refugees.
Ebola first appeared in 1976 in Sudan and Congo, and gets its name from a river in the latter nation. It is one of the world’s most virulent diseases and is transmitted through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids of infected people.
Ebola causes fever, severe headaches and in some cases hemorrhaging. It spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids or objects contaminated by someone ill with the disease. In some cases, the virus is spread through contact with someone who has died from the disease.
The virus enters the body through broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth. It can also spread through sexual contact.