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Dublin: 3 °C Sunday 23 November, 2014

Uganda: “Lots of people don’t really understand what Ebola is”

What is it like to be on the frontline of fighting the Ugandan Ebola outbreak? A Médecins Sans Frontières emergency coordinator explains.

Gray demonstrates what protective clothing MSF staff wear
Gray demonstrates what protective clothing MSF staff wear

DOCTORS AND MEDICAL workers are continuing to fight an Ebola outbreak in Uganda.

Nine of the 14 reported deaths were members of the same household.

Médecins Sans Frontières is one of the groups on the ground dealing with the situation.

Henry Gray, MSF’s logistics emergency coordinator for the outbreak in Uganda, said that the organisation has a lot of experience in dealing with the deadly disease.

MSF is in the process of installing a treatment centre in Kagadi, where patients can be treated in isolation, helping to reduce the risk of contagion in the community.

Challenges

Gray said that it’s not just about reacting to the physical challenges of an outbreak, and that educating people is also vital.

Health workers are particularly susceptible to catching it so, along with treating patients, one of our main priorities is training Ugandan health staff to reduce the risk of them catching the disease whilst caring for patients. We have to put in place extremely rigorous safety procedures to ensure that no health workers are exposed to the virus – through contaminated material from patients or medical waste infected with Ebola.

He said that the general public is understandably concerned, because this isn’t a disease that they regularly encounter.

This is the biggest Ebola outbreak in Uganda since 2007, and lots of people don’t really understand what Ebola is. While they know how to recognise malaria or cholera, Ebola is much more frightening for them – partly because the early symptoms can be very similar to well-known diseases.

Symptoms

Symptoms of Ebola can include fever, vomiting, sore throats and headaches and, in severe cases, internal or external bleeding. Patients with a severe case of the disease will need intensive care, said Gray.

Unfortunately there is no specific treatment or vaccine for Ebola  – several vaccines are in development, but it’s likely to be several years before one is available.

Gray said that Ebola spreads quickly and can be deadly, so the social effects can be very severe.

The patients we are treating are very frightened, for obvious reasons. Their families are also very scared, so as well as our treatment centre, we are setting up psychosocial support for the patients, their families and also our own staff, who may also be traumatised by what is happening.

Although people are only actually infectious when they have Ebola symptoms, Gray said that many people have stopped kissing or shaking hands when they greet each other.

There’s a lot of media publicity about how to reduce the risk of catching the disease and to seek medical help immediately if someone becomes ill, and these public messages are vital.

Hoping for the best

The new treatment centre will have the capacity to treat and care for between 50 and 60 patients at a time. Said Gray:

At the moment we’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”

In this clip, Gray demonstrates to health staff how to correctly dress in protective clothing to treat patients who may have ebola.



The Ministry of Health in Uganda has said it is working to control the outbreak. The WHO has been notified but has not yet recommended any travel restriction be applied to Uganda.

Read: 14 dead in first major outbreak of Ebola since 2009>

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