Story at a glance
- Ebola virus is endemic to several countries in Africa, meaning that it circulates naturally and occasionally causes outbreaks.
- There is a new ongoing outbreak in Uganda affecting 15 districts in the country that has so far caused an estimated 74 cases and 39 deaths.
- A previous epidemic of a different species of the virus in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 led to more than 11,000 deaths.
Government officials in Uganda have put two districts under lockdown for three weeks, following an official declaration of an Ebola outbreak in the country on Sept. 20.
Since last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health agencies have been keeping an eye on the situation in Uganda. Ebola reappeared in the country in August following a separate outbreak of the disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this spring.
About the Ebola virus
Ebolavirus is a genus of viruses, including four species that cause disease in humans. It causes Ebola virus disease (EVD) or Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Symptoms include fever and fatigue, but can worsen into vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.
Mortality rate for EVD varies by species, but on average may be around 50 percent and can range from 20 to 90 percent depending on the viral species and treatment availability, according to the WHO.
In an infected individual, the virus can be found in all bodily fluids. It can be transferred through bodily fluids or contact with broken skin or mucous membranes.
These new cases are caused by a version that originated in Sudan, the species named “Sudan ebolavirus.” Previous outbreaks of this species had a mortality rate of about 50 percent.
The current outbreak
From what is currently known, the first cases in this Ebola outbreak in Uganda were detected in September. The first probable cases may have happened as early as the first week of August, according to slides from a media briefing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held on Oct. 12.
Most recent estimates suggest there have been 74 cases (54 lab confirmed, 20 probable) so far, with 39 deaths (19 confirmed, 20 probable), according to the CDC. Fourteen people have recovered.
Health officials are monitoring more than 600 contacts in 15 districts in Uganda who may have been exposed to the virus. Cases have not been detected in Uganda’s capital city Kampala as of the Oct. 12 briefing.
The current response
The CDC says they are working to expand testing capabilities to more laboratories and increase regional coordination among treatment centers. The WHO is sending resources to areas affected.
“Our primary focus now is to support the Government of Uganda to rapidly control and contain this outbreak, to stop it spreading to neighbouring districts, and neighbouring countries,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a media briefing last week.
There’s a vaccine called the rVSV-ZEBOV Ebola vaccine for a different species, “Zaire ebolavirus,” which is the most lethal version of Ebola. During previous outbreaks, it was administered to close contacts exposed to the virus in a “ring vaccination” strategy where individuals surrounding a case are vaccinated against the disease.
However, the species of Ebola virus causing the current Uganda outbreak does not have an existing approved vaccine or therapeutic treatment, according to the CDC. The Serum Institute of India announced they will make doses of an experimental vaccine for this virus.
The risk of spread
The last time Ebola reached the U.S. was during the 2014 to 2016 epidemic in West Africa, which was caused by the Zaire species. Overall, there were 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths.
In the U.S., there were 11 cases and two deaths, according to the CDC. Most cases were associated with travel from West Africa, often in health care workers who went to African countries to aid in the Ebola response. There was transmission of the virus from an infected individual to two health care workers who both recovered.
Right now, the CDC says that the risk for people in the U.S. is low because there are no direct flights from Uganda to the U.S. Officials have begun screening arriving passengers at five airports. The agency has a travel alert at level 2 — Practice Enhanced Precautions — for Uganda, saying to avoid nonessential travel to affected areas.
If new Ebola cases were to reach the U.S., there’s a high likelihood they would be contained by public health officials like the 2014 cases.
Screening for potential EVD cases may be similar to the coronavirus but could be more effective in catching cases early. Transmission of the Ebola virus requires contact with body fluid from an infected individual so determining exposure is simpler compared to an airborne virus.
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