Panic spreads as Uganda reports 101 Ebola cases

KAMPALA Fri Dec 7, 2007 3:33pm EST

Staff of the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) treat suspected Ebola patients in Congo's Eastern Kasai province, September 26, 2007. Across the border, Uganda has 101 suspected cases of Ebola fever and hundreds more people being closely monitored, officials said on Friday, as fear grew in Uganda and neighboring countries that the deadly virus might spread. REUTERS/MSF/Pascale Zintzen/Handout

Staff of the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) treat suspected Ebola patients in Congo's Eastern Kasai province, September 26, 2007. Across the border, Uganda has 101 suspected cases of Ebola fever and hundreds more people being closely monitored, officials said on Friday, as fear grew in Uganda and neighboring countries that the deadly virus might spread.

Credit: Reuters/MSF/Pascale Zintzen/Handout

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KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda has 101 suspected cases of Ebola fever and hundreds more people being closely monitored, officials said on Friday, as fear grew in Uganda and neighboring countries that the deadly virus might spread.

Twenty two people have so far died of the fever and Minister of State for primary health-care Dr. Emmanuel Otaala told journalists 11 health workers have fallen sick.

"Cumulatively, we have 101 cases," he said.

Another 338 people are being monitored because they came into contact with those infected by the virulent hemorrhagic fever, which often causes victims to bleed to death through the ears, eyes and other orifices.

All were in western Uganda's Bundibugyo district, except for two in Kampala, including a doctor who died. Otaala said the cabinet had approved a pay increase to compensate health workers taking on the risk of dealing with Ebola.

The outbreak, which started in August, has sparked panic amongst officials, health workers and the public, with the medical union calling on staff to refuse looking after patients unless they are issued proper protective gear.

The affected region borders Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose Ebola river gave the virus its name after some of the first cases were recorded in its valley in 1976.

The independent Daily Monitor said Congo had sealed its border with the district. Congolese officials denied this.

"We have just informed people in the region they need to be vigilant," Congolese Health Ministry official Dr Benoit Kabela told Reuters by telephone from Kinshasa. Kabela said medical staff had been deployed and given protective gear.

Meanwhile, southwestern neighbor Rwanda said it had set up mobile clinics and isolation wards at border posts with Uganda.

"The Ministry of Health has deployed trained medical personnel at the borders," spokeswomen Ines Mpambara said.

Kenya is also screening Ugandans at its western border.

The four-month delay between the start of the outbreak and confirmation last week that it was Ebola has raised suspicions the government covered it up so as not to scare delegates -- Britain's Queen Elizabeth and 53 heads of government -- who met in Kampala two weeks ago for a Commonwealth summit.

The government denies it hid information. "Confirmation of this epidemic took a long time because we had to go to (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in) Atlanta," Otaala said.

The last Ebola outbreak in Uganda was in 2000, when 425 people caught it and more than half died.

Meanwhile, north of the Ebola-hit district, a separate epidemic of bubonic plague has infected 160 people and killed 19 since July, Health Ministry spokesman Paul Kabwa said.

Two outbreaks in separate places struck northwest Uganda's West Nile region. Kabwa told Reuters by telephone a cultural practice of making women sleep on the floor where they are bitten by fleas whilst men take the bed was to blame.

"Women are more affected because they sleep on the floor. The fleas cannot jump onto the bed, so the men survive. We have a program of public education to tackle this," he said.

(Additional reporting by Arthur Asiimwe in Kigali, editing by Mary Gabriel)

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