Uganda incident raises fears of Ebola spreading from Congo
World Health Organisation mulls if the 11-month outbreak constitutes a ‘public health emergency of international concern’
Geneva — The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a new incidence of Ebola in Uganda on Wednesday, fuelling concerns that the virus may be spreading beyond Democratic Republic of Congo, as an expert panel weighs whether to sound the alarm internationally.
The WHO said a Congolese fisherwoman travelled across the border to sell fish at Mpondwe market on July 11, where she had four vomiting incidents before returning to Congo and dying of Ebola.
Ebola is highly infectious and spread through bodily fluids. The outbreak, largely confined to Congo apart from three deaths in Uganda in June, has killed 1,676 people – more than two thirds of those who contracted it – over the past year.
The health response relies on tracking down people who may have been exposed to the virus and vaccinating them and anybody they have had contact with.
The WHO report said 19 other fishmongers were listed as possible contacts in the Uganda incident. It said 44 currency exchange workers had volunteered to be vaccinated, while another 590 fishmongers could be targeted for vaccination.
Local leaders were very co-operative, but none of the market traders were willing to provide further information for fear of losing business, given that it was a market day, the WHO said.
Health workers had not established where the fishmonger spent nights, how she travelled or who transported her merchandise, or who cleaned up her vomit.
News of the incident came as the WHO’s emergency committee of international experts met for a fourth time to decide if the 11-month outbreak constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC).
Such a designation would include recommendations for international action and could help unlock funds, which the WHO has said are sorely needed.
It would be only the fifth such designation, after the 2013-2016 West African Ebola epidemic that killed over 11,300 people, the 2009 flu pandemic, polio in 2014 and the Zika virus that caused a spate of birth defects across Latin America.
In June the committee decided against declaring a PHEIC because the potential disruption risked causing economic harm, while achieving nothing.
But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that a case of the highly infectious disease in Goma was a potential gamechanger, since Ebola could spread among the urban population for the first time and into neighbouring Rwanda.
A separate WHO report said there was also a very high risk in the Arua district of Uganda, which borders a Congolese area where an Ebola patient died after having had contact with over 200 people. Two deaths in Arua were under investigation.