Exactly a month ago, the Minister of Health, Dr. Ruth Acheng, rushed to Uganda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to superintend prevention of a possible infusion of the Ebola virus into the country. That was on the back of two deaths from an itinerant family of both Ugandans and Congolese, who had crossed into Uganda and then went back to the DRC.
This time round, a case of Ebola attack on a Pentecostal pastor, has been reported and confirmed in the DRC eastern town of Goma of one million inhabitants, which is close to and a transport hub for people coming and going to both Uganda, Rwanda and beyond. He had travelled in a vehicle with 18 other people fromButembo, another eastern town in the DRC.
It has also come at a time two weeks ago when an ethnic clash in the eastern DRC between the Lendu and Hima left hundreds of Congolese crossing the Lake Albert into Uganda. That these people could not be husbanded for observation and vaccination against Ebola is a foregone conclusion. It has made suspicions to be aired that a possible outbreak of the disease cannot be ruled out from reaching here and the Southern Sudan.
The tumultuous situation in this region has given birth to a proliferation of refugees, especially being accommodated in Uganda. Whereas, these people would be billeted in camps, the “lack of a clear policy” has led a good number of these people to basically settle wherever they find succour.
The Mayor of Kampala, EriasLukwago, in a meeting at the United Nations in New York for a conference of mayors recently, decried this situation in Kampala.But even without Lukwago noting this, one only needs to go to the southern part of the central part of the city to witness this. Around places like Arua Park, Kikuubo, ShauriYako and Owino markets, you encounter many Congolese. It is easy to mistake that they are now the normal DRC trading picture of this area in Kampala.
Then go far afield to places like Kawempe and Seeta, and especially, in the schools there, the number of South Sudanese pupils and students attending these schools, suggests that their parents have made significant settlements in those areas. And yet they should form part of the refugees who have come to Uganda and are not in the designated camps.
Given this situation of the refugee population here, the World Health Organization (WHO), was then lukewarm about the possible consequences of the spread of the Ebola virus in the Great Lakes Region, believing that the outbreak was confined to only the DRC. Even then, two months ago, the disease had already claimed 1,300 lives; now the figure stands at 1,600.
There is another emergency meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, over this now, and the WHO chief, Dr. Michael Wine, believes that if there was no wake-up call then, the Butembo-Goma case of the pastor, is that wake-up call now; and that the spread of the virus be declared a global threat. The pastor has since died.
This assessment would be in line with the case of the-then West African countries of: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, four years ago, when a similar epidemic killed more than eleven thousand people.
The Swiss organization, Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF), is already on the ground in the eastern DRC, attempting to control the spread of the virus, by vaccinating people and treating suspected and confirmed cases of the disease. It is a tall order against the disease itself, and the disorganized and fluid political and security situation in the area with uncounted rebel fighting groups and the stigma attached to the disease, that it is a creation of witchcraft.
The Ebola outbreak in the eastern DRC is the second largest one in the world. To leave the control of the pestilence to a few non-governmental organizations is to underrate the impact that the disease will cause, if a global emergency is not declared. It is demonstrated by the fact that two months ago, WHO was only able to get less than half of the $98 million pledged to fighting it in the DRC. This can only be upped if there is an emergency that will assume some of the levels of the outbreak in West Africa.
With the Goma call, the situation cannot be left to only MSF, Acheng and Lukwago to accentuate. That is why the world should pay attention to what WHO’s Wise is saying.