Porous border could hinder efforts to stem spread of Ebola

Tuesday, June 18, 2019
By Paul Martin

By RODNEY MUHUMUZA
APNews.com
6/18/2019

MPONDWE, Uganda (AP) — Several well-trodden paths crisscross this lush area where people walk between Congo and Uganda to visit nearby family and friends and go to the busy markets.

The problem is that the pedestrians may unknowingly be carrying the deadly Ebola virus, and hindering efforts to control the current outbreak in eastern Congo, which has killed more than 1,400 people.

The busy border post is open 12 hours a day from 7 a.m., but after dark people walk along the “panyas,” or “mouse paths,” as the narrow dirt trails are known in the local Kiswahili language.

The footpaths show the close kinship between the two countries, where most people have relatives on both sides of the border. But as Ebola rages they are a source of worry for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent any further cross-border contamination. Eastern Congo has battled the Ebola outbreak since last August and last week the disease spread to Uganda, where two people died of the hemorrhagic fever.

“This border is very porous,” said James Mwanga, a Ugandan police officer in charge of the Mpondwe border post. “You will not know who has passed if the person went through the unofficial border posts, in most cases. Now there is anxiety and so on. We have heightened our alertness.”

The Ebola deaths in Uganda happened after a family of Congolese-Ugandans traveled to Congo to care for a family elder suffering from the disease.

Authorities believe members of that family, including a 5-year-old boy and his 50-year-old grandmother who have since died of Ebola , took a footpath back into Uganda. In doing so, they may have exposed many Ugandans to the viral disease.

The current outbreak in eastern Congo has become the second worst, after the West Africa epidemic of 2014-2016 in which more than 11,000 people died. Despite new anti-Ebola vaccines, the current outbreak has been difficult to control. Eastern Congo is one of the world’s most turbulent regions and rebels have attacked medical centers while community resistance has also hurt Ebola response work. The virus can spread quickly via close contact with bodily fluids of those infected and can be fatal in up to 90% of cases.

Identifying people who might have been exposed is crucial. The World Health Organization says at least 112 Ebola contacts have been identified in Uganda.

The outbreak is an “extraordinary event” of deep concern but does not yet merit being declared a global emergency , a Word Health Organization expert committee said last week.

Declaring an emergency could have “unintended consequences,” such as airlines stopping flights or governments closing borders, Preben Aavitsland, the acting chair of the committee, told reporters.

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