Ebola virus breaks out in Uganda


A high mound of earth, piled outside a mud hut in Kasubi suburb of Gulu Town, marks the spot where Rose Akello was buried after falling victim to a mystery virus which caused her to bleed to death.

In the following fortnight, seven of her family and friends, many of whom had attended her funeral, also fell victim.

Doctors believe that they may have contracted the virus when they washed their hands in a shared bowl of water at her burial, a local custom symbolising unity.

On Saturday, health officials confirmed that the strange illness which has left 33 people dead in the northern Ugandan district of Gulu is the Ebola virus - a highly contagious form of viral haemorrhagic fever which causes many victims to bleed through their orifices.

This is the first recorded incidence of Ebola in Uganda, although in 1977 a related form of viral haemorrhagic fever, Marburg, left killed 19 people in Bugiri, eastern Uganda.

So far, 62 people are known to have contracted the virus, all within a 32 km radius of Gulu Town.

But more cases report daily to Gulu's two hospitals. Doctors believe that the true number of those affected could be far higher.

"Eighty per cent of those who arrive tell you that they have lost people in their families, five or six for every one that comes into the hospital," said Dr Matthew Lukwiya, medical superintendent at Lacor Mission Hospital, which has the most victims.

The Ebola virus could not have struck in a more vulnerable area. Gulu district is at the heart of a 12-year insurgency, and more than a third of the population live in crowded refugee camps, often in fear of attack by the Lord's Resistance Army rebels based in neighbouring southern Sudan.

The region is poor and marginalised, and health facilities are already over-stretched. The Gulu government hospital has been slow to react to the outbreak, only sending its first fact-finding mission on October 8th, a week after the first recorded hospital death.