Uganda: the power of prevention during epidemic outbreaks

Published: 18 February 2013 12:00 CET
  • Uganda Red Cross Society volunteer Nakitende Masitula, from Luwero, Uganda talks to a woman at her home in a village near the Ugandan town of Luwero. URCS volunteers have been sensitizing the local population to the dangers of Ebola following a recent outbreak in the area. Victor Lacken/IFRC
  • A woman whistles to the call the wind as she separates grain from chaff near the town of Kotido in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda. Traditional farming methods are employed in this part of Uganda where food security is very much an issue, especially during the dry season. The URCS food security program is helping the local population adapt to a sedentary way of life, to deal with the effects of climate change in the area, and to maximise the food yield from their meagre resources. Victor Lacken/IFRC
  • The fish pond the in Bugiri Intergrated Organic Farm in Kasasira, Uganda. Fish are farmed here and sold to the local population. The integrated organic farm in Bugiri village is an example of how the URCS helps communities increase the food yield of their land. Training and expertise is given in soil management techniques, efficient water usage, crop rotation, kitchen gardening, beekeeping, fish farming and rearing pigs. Victor Lacken/IFRC
  • Children in their village in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda. Food security is very much an issue in this part of Uganda where, especially during the dry season, and malnutrition is evident. The URCS food security program is helping the local population adapt to a sedentary way of life, to deal with the effects of climate change in the area, and to maximise the food yield from their meagre resources. Victor Lacken
Uganda Red Cross Society volunteer Nakitende Masitula, from Luwero, Uganda talks to a woman at her home in a village near the Ugandan town of Luwero. Victor Lacken/IFRC

By Victor Lacken in Uganda

When it comes to Ebola hemorrhagic fever, you can’t be too careful. It remains one of the most lethal viruses known to man and there is no known cure. Its highly infectious and contagious nature means that an outbreak of the fever must be immediately identified and isolated.

This was the situation in late 2012 in the Luweero district in Central Uganda, when reports emerged of an Ebola outbreak. Once the first case was confirmed – a taxi driver who fell ill with the symptoms and later died – the Uganda Red Cross Society swung into action with a campaign to inform people on how best to prevent, or limit, the spread of the disease.

This was the second Ebola outbreak in Uganda in a three month period, with no reported linkage between the two.

“As soon as the outbreak was announced in our district, the volunteers were immediately deployed and they went in to start on the door-to-door sensitization of the communities,” said Annet Nampima, Branch Manager of Luweero District, Uganda Red Cross.  “This has really contributed to the spread of the messages about Ebola, and even changing people’s attitudes and practices in the communities.”

Red Cross volunteers visited homes throughout the area putting up posters, handing out brochures and giving practical advice on what to do should a member of the household have a suspected infection. The reaction on the doorsteps was mostly positive, but some volunteers encountered resistance in some quarters to the practice of avoiding physical contact with those suspected of having the disease.

“They have a culture of, for example, washing dead bodies, but with this outbreak and the sensitization, this practice has changed. They have really come to believe they need to have protective wear and protective equipment if they are to handle dead bodies,” said Annet.
Belief in witchcraft and superstition also presented a challenge to volunteers trying to educate people about how to prevent the virus spreading. But their message remained the same, there are practical steps that can be taken to reduce the risks.

The people of Luweero are generally not wealthy, and anytime a person is suspected of having contracted Ebola, it can be devastating even if they are later given the all-clear. This is because the suspected victim is isolated and many of his or her possessions – clothes, mattresses, pots and pans – are destroyed as a precaution against the spread of the virus.

The Uganda Red Cross Society stepped in to help these people once they were discharged from hospital by giving them new items such as mattresses, kitchen items, disinfectants, containers for water, and mosquito nets, to replace those that were destroyed.
Unfortunately, epidemic outbreaks in Uganda are becoming more and more frequent. In the last 12 years, Uganda has been hit with four Ebola outbreaks. Also in 2012, Uganda encountered two outbreaks of Cholera and one outbreak of Marburg.  Similar to the Ebola outbreaks, the Uganda Red Cross provided essential health and hygiene information to nearly 7 million people in all affected areas of the country to help stop the diseases from spreading.

These epidemic outbreaks in Uganda are proof of the increasing trend of smaller, recurring ‘silent’ disasters and health emergencies around the world today. They are definitely not silent for the people, families and communities impacted.

For the recent epidemic outbreaks in 2012, the Red Cross helped 70,000 people and their families affected by these diseases - and preventing the epidemics to millions more - with support from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department.

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