The deadly Ebola virus has killed 14 people in western Uganda this month, Ugandan health officials said on Saturday, ending weeks of speculation about the cause of a strange disease that had many fleeing their homes.
The officials and a WHO representative told a news conference in Kampala on Saturday that there is “an outbreak of Ebola” in Uganda.
“Laboratory investigations done at the Uganda Virus Research Institute … have confirmed that the strange disease reported in Kibaale is indeed Ebola hemorrhagic fever,” the Ugandan government and the WHO said in joint statement.
Kibaale is a district in midwestern Uganda, where people in recent weeks have been troubled by an illness that seemed to have come from nowhere. Ugandan health officials had been stumped as well and spent weeks conducting laboratory tests that were at first inconclusive.
On Friday, Joaquim Saweka, the WHO representative in Uganda, told reporters that investigators were “not so sure” it was Ebola, and a Ugandan health official dismissed the possibility of Ebola as a rumor. It appears firm evidence of Ebola was clinched overnight.
Health officials told reporters in Kampala that the 14 dead were among 20 reported with the disease.
Two of the infected have been isolated for examination by researchers and health officials.
Officials urged Ugandans to be calm, saying a national emergency task force had been set up to stop the disease from spreading.
There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola and in Uganda, where in 2000 the disease killed 224 people, it resurrects terrible memories. There have been isolated cases since then, such as in 2007 when an outbreak of a new strain of Ebola killed at least 37 people in Bundibugyo, a remote district close to the Congolese border.
Ebola, which manifests itself as a hemorrhagic fever, is highly infectious and kills quickly. It was first reported in 1976 in Congo and is named for the river where it was recognized, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A CDC factsheet on Ebola says the disease is “characterized by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat and weakness, followed by diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients.”
Scientists do not know the natural reservoir of the virus, but they suspect the first victim in an Ebola outbreak gets infected through contact with an infected animal, such as a monkey.
The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, such as during communal funerals when the bereaved come into contact with an Ebola victim.
In Kibaale, some villagers had started abandoning their homes in recent weeks to escape what they thought was an illness that had something to do with bad luck, because people were quickly falling ill and dying with no immediate explanation, officials said.
Officials said now that they have verified Ebola in the area they can concentrate on controlling the disease.
Ebola patients were being treated at the only major hospital in Kibaale, said Stephen Byaruhanga, the district’s health secretary.
The challenge, he added, was retaining the services of all the nurses and doctors who are being asked to risk their lives in order to look after the sick.