Patients fled from a hospital in western Uganda terrified by news that a mysterious illness, which had killed at least 14 people in the region, was Ebola fever, one of the world's most virulent diseases.
Ignatius Besisira, an MP for Buyaga East County in the Kibaale district, said people had believed at first that the unexplained deaths were related to witchcraft.
"Immediately when there was confirmation that it was Ebola … patients ran out of Kagadi Hospital [where some of the victims had died]," he told the Guardian. "Even the medical officers are very, very frightened."
Government officials and a World Health Organisation (WHO) representative confirmed the Ebola outbreak at a news conference in Kampala last Saturday. "Laboratory investigations done at the Uganda Virus Research Institute … have confirmed that the strange disease reported in Kibaale is indeed Ebola haemorrhagic fever," they said in a joint statement.
Health officials said at least 20 people had been infected and 14 of them had died.
There is no treatment or vaccine for Ebola, which is transmitted by close personal contact and, depending on the strain, can kill up to 90% of those who contract the virus.
It has a devastating history in Uganda where, in 2000, at least 425 people were infected, of whom more than half died. Ebola was previously reported in the country in May last year when it killed a 12-year-old girl.
During an outbreak in 2007 that claimed at least 37 lives, President Yoweri Museveni advised people not to shake hands and public gatherings were also discouraged.
One of those who succumbed to the outbreak in Kibaale was a clinical officer, Besisira said. The other fatalities came from a single household in Nyamarunda subdistrict.
Joaquim Saweka, the WHO representative in Uganda, said the suspected infections emerged in the region in early July, but their confirmation came only on Friday. The Ugandan government said a national emergency task force had been set up and urged the population to remain calm.
The government, the WHO and the United States Centres for Disease Control have sent experts to Kibaale to tackle the outbreak. Besisira said officials in Kibaale had announced precautionary measures on the radio on Saturday.
"We have assured them [the people] that we have a very strong team … who are making sure the disease is controlled … I am very confident we can contain it."
Besisira said he had not heard of people moving out of the region, but the Daily Nation newspaper in neighbouring Kenya said on Sunday that people were leaving the area around Kagadi where the disease first appeared. "We have to move to safer places because we can easily get infected by this disease here," the paper quoted a resident, Omuhereza Kugonza, as saying.
The WHO describes Ebola as "a viral haemorrhagic fever and one of the most virulent diseases known to humankind".
It says the disease was identified in 1976 in a western equatorial province of Sudan and a nearby region of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It takes its name from a river in the Congo and Kibaale is near Uganda's border with the country.
Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with the body fluids and tissues of infected people. It can also be transmitted by handling sick or dead infected wild animals, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelopes and fruit bats.
Symptoms include sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, impaired kidney and liver function and bleeding. – © Guardian News & Media 2012