It’s been nearly 10 years since the world’s largest Ebola virus outbreak, which originated in West Africa in late 2013. Medical Teams was on the frontlines then, as well as during a 2018 Ebola outbreak originating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Now, we’re staying vigilant and ready to respond in light of recent news of another potential outbreak.
What is Ebola and How Does Ebola Spread?
The virus was discovered in 1976 in a village along the Ebola River in DRC. Ebola is a highly contagious virus that causes severe fever and internal bleeding. The virus spreads through contact with bodily fluids. Without prompt detection and treatment, the virus spreads quickly throughout families and communities. The death rate of people who contract Ebola is about 50 percent.
As of 2021, estimated deaths from Ebola total more than 15,000 people.
Ebola in Congo 2018-2020
In 2018, the virus spread quickly through the Congo due to an increase in insecurity and violence that disrupted efforts to contain the outbreak. Rebel groups targeted health facilities and workers as they attempted to treat Ebola cases. Every time a facility was attacked, precious time was lost in combating the outbreak. The sick were discouraged from seeking medical care, scared that they would be vulnerable to the violence.
Because of the conflict, thousands of Congolese fled their homes, crossing over into Uganda. At the time, Medical Teams was the leading organization providing health screenings as refugees crossed the border.
“The country here is on high alert, expecting that at any time we’ll receive a confirmed case,” said Andrew Hoskins, former country director for Medical Teams International in Uganda. Before, Hoskins had led Medical Teams’ Ebola response efforts in Liberia during the disease’s deadliest outbreak in modern history. That outbreak, spanning 2013 to 2016, cut a deadly path through West Africa killing more than 11,000 people.
“Our goal is to be prepared for Ebola crossing the border. That means contain the outbreak and make sure it doesn’t become an epidemic,” Hoskins said at the time. “Medical Teams International is working alongside the Uganda government to safely isolate and transport any suspected cases to regional hospitals, which have special wards dedicated to Ebola and other types of hemorrhagic fevers.”
Whenever a refugee crossed the border of Uganda, Medical Teams staff checked their temperature and monitored them for symptoms of the virus. We also trained community health workers to educate community members about the signs of Ebola infection and what to do if a case was suspected.
An Ebola Tragedy
Patricia was a refugee from northeastern Congo, near one of the areas hit hardest by the disease outbreak.
“My friend’s husband was taken ill one afternoon. Initially they thought it was malaria because of the fever, then the bleeding started,” Patricia said. “The health workers seemed to know what was happening but instead of telling the family what was going on, they left the health center and didn’t return.”
With nobody to treat her friend’s husband, he went back home. Within a few days, his two children, 5 and 12 years old, started showing symptoms of Ebola.
“When the children became ill, that was the moment my friend and her husband realized this was Ebola,” Patricia said.
Instead of seeking further treatment, the father and mother set their house on fire. The entire family died in the blaze, Patricia said.
We’re Ready to Help
To stop horrific situations from happening in Uganda and neighboring countries, Medical Teams staff are prepared to safely prevent the spread of disease. Your support ensures we’re prepared if Ebola crosses over the border. If and when that happens, your compassion will prevent suffering and save lives.
You can support Ebola preparedness and provide life-saving care to refugees by donating today.
Note: Portions of this post were originally published in May 2019.