E. Africa learned hard lessons from Ebola, a disease alien to W. Africa

When Ebola hit Uganda two years ago — the third outbreak in a dozen years — the president quickly went on TV and urged Ugandans to avoid touching each other. Health officials speedily quarantined people. The quick reactions by authorities and ordinary people helped snuff out that outbreak with only 17 deaths.

KAMPALA, Uganda — When Ebola hit Uganda two years ago — the third outbreak in a dozen years — the president quickly went on TV and urged Ugandans to avoid touching each other. Health officials speedily quarantined people. The quick reactions by authorities and ordinary people helped snuff out that outbreak with only 17 deaths.

Over the decades, Ebola cases have been confirmed in 10 African countries, including Congo where the disease was first reported in 1976. But until this year, Ebola had never come to West Africa. When people began dying there in March in an outbreak that on Friday escalated into an international public health emergency, governments and ordinary citizens didn’t know what they were confronting or how to respond, allowing the virus to spread out of control.

Some five months ago, deep in the steamy forests of southern Guinea, people began developing fevers with body aches, diarrhea and vomiting, which are some of the symptoms of the virus. Others might also progress to internal and external bleeding.

Even when they died, relatives touched and washed the dead, unaware that cleaning up vomit, diarrhea and handling soiled clothing is very risky because the virus spreads through contact with bodily fluids.

Malaria — a common killer in Africa — was believed by some families to be the cause of death. As more people became gravely ill, some desperate relatives took their loved ones to the distant capital in search of better medical care, jammed into minivans or other transportation. People who came into contact with those who showed symptoms also became infected, and they in turn infected other people as they travelled freely.

Soon, people in the capital, Conakry, were getting sick.

By late March, Doctors Without Borders announced that Guinea faced an “unprecedented epidemic” of Ebola.

In early April, fear was sweeping through not only Guinea but neighbouring Liberia, where deaths had also started occurring. When one lady fell ill in Liberia, she was taken not to a hospital but to a church for divine intervention. She soon died. In Guinea, passengers fled a bus after an elderly man vomited on board.

“It took them time to realize it was Ebola,” said Ugandan government epidemiologist Francis Adatu, who has been involved in tackling Ebola outbreaks in Uganda. “There was a delay in zeroing in and knowing that it is an Ebola epidemic.”

“If you have Ebola contacts freely walking in the villages, then you have a serious problem,” he said.

The West Africa outbreak also escalated because it affected cities and people are moving fairly freely across borders. In most past Ebola outbreaks, the people who got infected were in remote communities.

Local health authorities initially had no idea what they were dealing with and there was no community trust of the aid workers who encouraged isolation of patients from their families, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota professor who advises the U.S. government on infectious disease threats.

In previous Ebola outbreaks elsewhere in Africa, he said, “there was more belief they could bring it under control. People there saw these people came in in white suits and that in fact they could stop it. In Western Africa, there’s no experience with this. Who are they to believe this could make any difference?”

While the 2012 outbreak in Uganda was effectively contained within weeks, the West African outbreak has now killed nearly 1,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The World Health Organization on Friday declared the outbreak to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.

The 17 deaths in Uganda that occurred two years ago were far fewer than previous outbreaks in the country, so hard lessons were being learned.

Uganda’s first Ebola outbreak, in 2000, killed more than 220 people in about five months, and those deaths were largely blamed on the sort of official misjudgments and local ignorance seen in the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

In subsequent outbreaks, Ugandan health officials and aid groups moved more quickly to quarantine people who had had direct contact with those sickened by the disease. People were even encouraged not to properly bury their dead if they were victims of Ebola.

In July 2012, after an Ebola outbreak started sickening people in western Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni urged Ugandans to stop shaking hands. Casual sex was a risk, he said on national television.

Sam Kigozi, a shopkeeper in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, said he was so alarmed after Museveni issued the warning in July 2012 that he heeded the recommendations.

“I remember very well when Museveni warned us and the fear that I felt,” he said Friday. “I decided no more shaking hands, no more playing around until Ebola was over. It was very serious.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Lyn Radford, 2019 Canada Winter Games board chair, was named 2020 Sport Event Volunteer of the Year at the Prestige Awards. (File photo by Advocate staff)
WATCH: Lyn Radford wins award for volunteer efforts

The board chair of the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Red Deer dips below 300 active COVID-19 cases

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Red Deer continued to drop… Continue reading

A candlelight vigil will be held in Red Deer on Thursday to honour the 350-plus people killed in the Easter bombing attack in Sri Lanka. Contributed photo
Candlelight vigil planned for deaths linked to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak

A candlelight vigil is being planned for those who died due to… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Jaxsen Wiebe battles Calgary Hitmen forward Cael Zimmerman for a loose puck when the two teams squared off in February last season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Calgary Hitmen shutout Red Deer Rebels

Rebels name centre Jayden Grubbe team captain ahead of Friday’s game

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
WATCH: Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Funeral for Walter Gretzky to be held Saturday in home town of Brantford, Ont.

The funeral for hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s father Walter will take place… Continue reading

A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building is shown in Ottawa on May 14, 2013. A newly released audit report shows that difficulties with the judicial warrant process at Canada's spy agency — an issue that made headlines last summer — stretch back at least nine years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Spy warrant shortcomings stretch back almost a decade, newly released audit shows

OTTAWA — A newly released audit report shows that difficulties with the… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday night’s Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the estimated $29 million… Continue reading

A trial countdown sign marks the days at George Floyd Square, March 4, 2021, in Minneapolis. Ten months after police officers brushed off George Floyd's moans for help on the street outside a south Minneapolis grocery, the square remains a makeshift memorial for Floyd who died at the hand of police making an arrest. The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will begin with jury selection on March 8. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Officer’s trial could reopen intersection where Floyd died

MINNEAPOLIS — During a group’s recent meeting at the now-vacant Speedway gas… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2020 file photo Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell calls for an end to violence in the city during a news conference a day after a demonstrator was shot and killed in downtown Portland. Amid protests following the police killing of George Floyd last year Portland dissolved a special police unit designed to focus on gun violence. Critics say the squad unfairly targeted Black people, but gun violence and homicides have since spiked in Oregon's largest city, and some say disbanding the 35-officer unit was a mistake. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP, File)
As violence surges, some question Portland axing police unit

PORTLAND, Ore. — Elmer Yarborough got a terrifying call from his sister:… Continue reading

Harley Hay
Harley Hay: Just don’t call it cod liver oil

Many people swear that a daily dose of various vitamins is an… Continue reading

Email editor@auburn-reporter.com
Letter: Preserving green spaces in Red Deer

The Advocate published an article Feb. 11 about Sunnybrook residents concerned about… Continue reading

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Most Read