On 11 June, the first case of Ebola in Uganda was confirmed—and soon after, a total of three were confirmed. Our fear of Ebola spreading to Uganda became a reality. [Since publishing, an additional confirmed case tested positive on 29 August]. There are no further cases in the country, but this should not be an excuse for laxity.
One of the lessons we learned from other deadly Ebola outbreaks is that complacency can kill. As long as there is an Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), the risk for a cross border spread into Uganda remains extremely high.
So, what should be done to keep Ugandans safe from Ebola? The following five lessons we learned from other Ebola outbreak should be taken into account.
Uganda Red Cross/Aggrey Nyondwa
1. We should not panic or overreact and resort to drastic measures such as closing borders.
Even if this were to be done, it would not be efficient: for each point of entry that is closed, several other unofficial footpaths would emerge. Moreover, in times like this, when citizens of two countries are facing a shared menace, the last thing you want to do is to jeopardize the principle good neighbourliness. Cross border cooperation is key to controlling the disease. To simply close off our borders will not end Ebola. After all, we share families, friends and social, economic and cultural ties with DR Congo.
Uganda Red Cross/Aggrey Nyondwa
2. How we contain Ebola comes down to how we collectively respond together, at community-level.
Effective community engagement helps to tackle misinformation at the source. Thankfully, this is already happening. Red Cross volunteers are in high-risk areas, sensitizing communities about Ebola – providing information about the virus, what they can do to protect themselves, and screening the thousands of individuals who cross the border each day.
3. Working closely with other partners, starting with local community leaders, is essential, in order to leverage each other’s strength.
A powerful community-based surveillance system has been set up, in coordination with other actors and the Ministry of Health, thanks to USAID’s support, to help detect an outbreak early with the community to ensure people get treatment quickly and prevent its further spread. Since the beginning of 2019, communities have helped identify five people through the system who showed signs and symptoms of Ebola but later tested negative.
4. We have learned from previous Ebola responses, that fear and mistrust often become the bigger hurdle to prevent its spread.
Fear can prevent people from seeking medical care. Mistrust can feed harmful rumours and misinformation that see outbreaks worsen. We are hearing from communities about the types of rumours and misconceptions being shared. For instance, there is a widely believed myth that Ebola is witchcraft or that it isn’t treatable. We need to work with affected communities, to enlist their support in spreading the word that Ebola is real and that it kills.
5. Preparedness cannot be overemphasized.
We have seen from the cases two weeks ago that when we are prepared, we can respond rapidly to help stop Ebola from spreading. Government has demonstrated this through having responded quickly and efficiently to the three cases. Yet again, we know that to identify an outbreak early, we need communities to take the lead. As the Red Cross, we have been preparing for many months now for the eventuality that Ebola might come into Uganda. We have taken many lessons learned from the Ebola response in DR Congo to continuously adapt our approach here.
With epidemics and pandemics continuing to take place around the world, it is critical we increase our investments to ensure communities are prepared to respond in order to stop outbreaks early. There is no one who understands a community more than its own. When challenges arise, they are the ones best suited to come up with the solutions. These community members are the first to respond and can, ultimately, save lives.
Uganda Red Cross Society
The work to help tackle Ebola in Uganda, DR Congo and neighbouring countries at risk could not be done without the generous support from our donors. Special thanks to the American, Austrian, Belgian, British, China, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Japanese, Norwegian, Monaco, Spanish, Swiss, Canadian and Netherlands Red Cross, Kuwait and Turkish Red Crescent, Government of Austria, Government of United Kingdom (DFID), European Commission (DG ECHO), Italian Government Bilateral Emergency Fund, Government of Norway, Paul G Allen Family Foundation, Government of Spain, Government of Switzerland, Government of Canada, The Dutch Government, USAID, Western Union Foundation and WHO.