KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday advised people to avoid shaking hands, casual sex and do-it-yourself burials to reduce the chance of contracting the deadly Ebola virus after an outbreak killed 14 people and put many more at risk.
Museveni’s advice came as scared patients and health workers fled a district hospital in rural western Uganda where several cases of Ebola were being treated and as the authorities tried to alter people’s behavior to stop the virus spreading.
“We discourage the shaking of hands because that can cause contact through sweat which can cause problems ... and avoid promiscuity because these sicknesses can also be transmitted through sex,” Museveni said in a public statement.
There is no treatment for Ebola, which is transmitted by close contact and body fluids such as saliva, vomit, faeces, sweat, semen and blood. The authorities fear a repeat of an outbreak in 2000, the most devastating to date, when 425 people were infected, more than half of whom died.
Health workers suspected that the latest outbreak - which was confirmed on Friday - had occurred about three weeks ago in Nyanswiga village, Museveni said, adding that doctors had initially thought the symptoms were atypical of Ebola.
Nyanswiga, in Kibaale district, is about 170 km (100 miles) west of the capital Kampala, near the Democratic Republic of Congo where the virus first emerged in 1976, taking its name from the Ebola River.
The World Health Organisation has said the origin of the latest outbreak has not yet been confirmed, but that 18 of the 21 confirmed cases so far were understood to be linked to one family.
One of the 14 people reported to have died was a local health worker, Clare Muhumuza. She was transferred to Mulago hospital in Kampala where she died, stoking fears the disease could spread in the Ugandan capital.
Museveni urged people to also be cautious when it came to burying people, saying that people had contracted the virus while burying Ebola victims because they remained contagious even when dead.
“In case somebody dies from what you suspect to be Ebola please do not take on the job of burying him or her, call the medical workers to be the ones to do it because they are the ones that can do it safely,” he said.
Christine Ondoa, Uganda’s minister for health, told a news conference in Kampala that people had initially put off seeking medical care because they believed the virus was the work of “evil spirits”.
According to Tumusiime Jamilo, a reporter with Kagadi Kibaale Community Radio (KKCR), panic had gripped the Kagadi hospital in Kibaale, where suspected Ebola cases were being treated.
Some hospital staff had initially fled the establishment but were now returning as the authorities were providing protective gear for them, he told Reuters.
Kibaale local government authorities have ordered the closure of local primary and secondary schools and banned public gatherings as a precaution, he added.
Dan Kyamanywa, a health officer in Kibaale district, said up to 80,000 people in the district were at risk of infection.
Ebola symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, a headache and a sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, impaired kidney and liver functioning and both internal and external bleeding.
Depending on the strain, the virus kills up to 90 percent of those who contract it.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg and Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Osborn