BENI, Congo (AP) — A 5-year-old boy vomiting blood has become the first cross-border case of Ebola in the current deadly outbreak. Now authorities are trying to determine how his family, exposed to the virus, managed to cross from Congo into neighboring Uganda.
The World Health Organization late Tuesday confirmed the first Ebola case outside Congo since the outbreak began in August. Nearly 1,400 people have died in what has become the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.
Congo's health ministry said a dozen members of the boy's family had showed symptoms of Ebola and were put in isolation. But six managed to leave while awaiting transfer to an Ebola treatment center. They crossed into Uganda, where the boy has been receiving treatment and relatives are isolated.
Experts have long feared Ebola could spread to neighboring countries because of rebel attacks and community resistance hampering virus containment work in eastern Congo, one of the world's most turbulent regions. The virus can spread quickly via close contact with bodily fluids of those infected and can be fatal in up to 90% of cases.
Ugandan health teams "are not panicking," Henry Mwebesa, a physician and the national director of health services, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He cited the country's experience battling previous outbreaks of Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers.
"We have all the contingencies to contain this case," Mwebesa said. "It is not going to go beyond" the patient's family. Two family members were being tested for Ebola after developing symptoms, with results expected on Wednesday.
The Congolese family likely did not pass through official border points, where health workers screen all travelers for a high temperature and isolate those who show signs of illness.
The child's mother, who is married to a Ugandan, "knows where to pass. She does not have to go through the official border points," Mwebesa said.
The boy's Congolese grandmother, who traveled to Uganda with the rest of the family, is sick although Ebola test results are yet to come in, he said, speaking from Kasese, a district near the Congo border where the family is being treated.
Uganda is more stable than eastern Congo, and for the first time an experimental but effective Ebola vaccine is being widely used, with more than 130,000 doses distributed. Uganda has vaccinated nearly 4,700 health workers so far.
But Ebola has been especially feared in Uganda, where multiple outbreaks have occurred over the years. An outbreak in the north in 2000 infected 425 people and killed more than half of them.
The announcement of the first cross-border case puts new pressure on WHO to declare the Ebola outbreak a global health emergency. A WHO expert committee has twice decided that the outbreak, while of "deep concern," is not yet a global health emergency .
But international spread is one of the major criteria the United Nations agency considers before such a declaration. Millions have travelers along Congo's border with Uganda and Rwanda have been screened for Ebola since the outbreak began. WHO has advised against travel restrictions.
The news of a first cross-border case is "tragic but unfortunately not surprising," said Dr. Jeremy Farrar with the Wellcome Trust, which is funding vaccine research in this outbreak. While Uganda is well-prepared with established surveillance, "we can expect and should plan for more cases in (Congo) and neighboring countries. This epidemic is in a truly frightening phase and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon."
Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.
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