KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda declared an outbreak of a relatively rare strain of the Ebola virus on Tuesday, raising concerns about a wider spread because existing vaccines have not yet been tested against this version of the virus.
A 24-year-old man who died on Monday in central Uganda was found to have been infected with the Sudanese strain of Ebola, said Diana Atwine, permanent secretary in Uganda’s Ministry of Health.
It is the first time in more than a decade that the Sudan strain has been detected in Uganda, which has experienced six previous outbreaks of Ebola, including three of the Sudan strain.
Eight other patients suspected of having Ebola are currently being treated at health facilities in Mubende, a forested agricultural district about 90 miles west of the capital, Kampala, said Dr. Atwine. Health officials are also investigating the deaths of six other people, including three children, in the 24-year-old man’s village dating back to early September.
Most known outbreaks of Ebola, including the 2014-2016 epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa, were caused by a different version of the virus, known as the Zaire strain.
The development of two vaccines against Ebola Zaire has helped to contain several outbreaks in recent years, including in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea. The vaccines are given to healthcare workers and other people near patients, a process known as ring vaccination.
But the World Health Organization, which has sent supplies to Mubende, said Tuesday that the more widely used shot, Merck & Co.’s Ervebo vaccine, has not been approved for use on the Sudan strain. The agency said another Ebola vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson may be effective but has not yet been tested against the Sudan strain.
Responders from Uganda’s Ministry of Health were sent to Mubende on Tuesday, and the WHO sent medical supplies to support the treatment of patients.
The Ministry of Health said the 24-year-old man who died was initially treated for other illnesses including diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia and was admitted to three different clinics before he died at the regional referral hospital in Mubende. It is not yet known how he became infected.
Scientists believe that Ebola was first transmitted to humans by animals, such as primates or bats, and previous outbreaks were usually considered new introductions of the virus from animals. In recent years, however, there have been several outbreaks that appear to have been caused by Ebola survivors inadvertently passing on the virus, likely through intercourse, months or even years after shedding the initial infection.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from patients or contaminated materials through broken skin, eyes, nose or mouth.
In the largest known Ebola outbreak in Uganda, the Ebola Sudan strain killed 224 of 425 people infected in 2000 and 2001. In 2019, Uganda quickly contained an outbreak of Ebola Zaire imported from neighboring Congo, where more than 2,000 patients died the virus between patients 2018 and 2020.
“Uganda is no stranger to effective Ebola control,” Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa director, said on Tuesday. “Thanks to its expertise, measures have been taken to quickly detect the virus and we can rely on this knowledge to stop the spread of infections.”
Write to Nicholas Bariyo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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