Ugandan health officials and a WHO representative have confirmed the outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in western Uganda. The disease caused by the deadly Ebola virus has reportedly killed 14 people in the western part of the country.
The announcement ends speculations about outbreak of a "strange disease" reported to have caused many people in the region to flee. The Associated Press reports that in Kibaale, several homes were abandoned as people fled to escape the illness.
According to the joint statement by the Ugandan government and WHO, "Laboratory investigations done at the Uganda Virus Research Institute... have confirmed that the strange disease reported in Kibaale is indeed Ebola hemorrhagic fever."
Joaquim Saweka, WHO representative in Uganda, said earlier laboratory investigations had not confirmed Ebola and health authorities had ruled it out, saying that stories that the strange disease was Ebola were only rumor.
Health officials in Kampala said of the 20 reported to have contracted the illness, 14 have died. According to The New York Times, the outbreak was first reported in the area several weeks ago. The first person confirmed dead was a baby in the village of Nyanswiga.The baby's family has since lost eight others to the outbreak, The New York Times reports.
The clinical officer who treated the original case fell ill and died. Her 4-month-old baby admitted to hospital on Monday also died on Friday. The clinical officer's sister who took care of her when she was ill was also admitted for similar symptoms. Health officials say she is now in a relatively stable state.
Ugandan authorities will begin emergency response measures to the outbreak. Officials urged Ugandans to remain calm while a national emergency task force works to keep the disease from spreading.
According to the BBC, more than 1,200 deaths from Ebola hemorrhagic fever have been reported since the disease was first discovered in 1976. Uganda has seen three major outbreaks over the past 12 years. The deadliest was in 2000 when 425 people were infected and more than half died. There have been isolated outbreaks since then. In 2007, an outbreak of a new strain killed at least 37 people in Bundibugyo, a remote district of the country close to the Congolese border.
Ebola manifests itself as a hemorrhagic fever. The illness is very highly infectious and mortality rates could run as high as 90% for the more virulent strains. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola disease is "characterised by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness, followed by diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients."
Scientists have not confirmed the natural reservoir for the virus, but they believe the first victim in an outbreak gets infected through contact with a monkey.
The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or other body fluids of infected persons or other objects contaminated with infected body fluids.
The New York Times reports CDC keeps a team of scientists and a laboratory in Uganda to study Ebola, other deadly viruses and hemorrhagic fevers found in that region of Africa. CDC also identifies Ebola as a potential biological-weapons threat.
AP reports that Stephen Byaruhanga, the district's health secretary, said he hopes the disease will be controlled. He said the district was also facing the challenge of retaining health workers who were risking their lives to attend to the sick. He said: "Their lives are at stake."
Health officials are also worried that people with other illnesses may stop coming to the hospital out of fear of catching Ebola.