Stopping the Ebola outbreak in Uganda should now be a global priority

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On September 11, 2022, a 24-year-old man fell ill. On September 20, he was dead. Thus began the fourth major Ebola outbreak in Uganda.

Ebola is a contagious virus that sometimes spreads to human populations from animals. Because it is not as contagious as many respiratory pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, it is unlikely to cause a global pandemic. A regional epidemic, like that of 2014-2106 in West Africa, is however not excluded.

In addition, Ebola has a very high case fatality rate. In some recent epidemics, more than half of the identified cases have been fatal.

Vaccines have played an important role in containing recent Ebola outbreaks, but are useless against the current outbreak, which is caused by the Sudanese variant. Most Ebola outbreaks are caused by a variant simply and confusingly called the Ebola virus, for which there is an effective vaccine.

Another concern is the dispersion of known cases. Although the outbreak dates back less than a month, cases have been confirmed in five different districts, some of which are hundreds of kilometers apart. This suggests that the virus may have spread unobserved in the community and indeed may still be spreading.

Now the United States has decided to start air passenger screening entering the country from Uganda as the CDC issued a Travel alert level 2 for the country. A Level 2 travel alert means visitors should take heightened precautions when traveling to a location. In this case, these precautions include avoiding non-essential travel to affected areas, avoiding contact with sick people, and being alert for signs and symptoms. Travelers who develop symptoms after arriving in the United States are urged to self-isolate, avoid public transportation and seek treatment.

The current outbreak in Uganda is a reminder that a globally connected society is vulnerable to infectious diseases wherever they appear. Stopping outbreaks at source is much more cost effective than mitigating transmission after a pathogen has spread. Whatever help Uganda needs to bring the current outbreak under control is definitely worth the investment.

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