South Sudan: Preparing for Ebola - or Not

Juba — South Sudan is worried about the spread of Ebola, an incurable disease which has killed 16 people in neighbouring Uganda over the past few days.

"The Ministry of Health of the Republic of South Sudan in collaboration with World Health Organization (WHO) would like to caution the general public to be vigilant following reports of an Ebola haemorrhagic fever outbreak in the Kibaale area of mid-western Uganda," a government/WHO statement said this week.

A 2005 peace deal in Sudan opened up borders for aid and trade and Uganda has become South Sudan's largest supplier. "South Sudan and Uganda share a lot in terms of population movements and trade. As a result people move from one place to other [and are] likely to cause importation of the disease into the two countries once the other is affected", the joint statement said.

Several buses ply the Juba-Kampala route daily, and there are also two flights a day from Entebbe to Juba.

"We suspect [Ebola would strike] first in the border areas, as that is where people are coming and going," said Kajamsuk Moi, CEO of the country's leading but run-down hospital in Juba.

"WHO are not worrying a lot but we've already taken some emergency measures where we've activated the national task force and enhanced surveillance of the border areas with Uganda", said Abdinasir Mohamed Abubakar, WHO South Sudan's head of communicable diseases.

It is also educating communities near the border on Ebola risks and signs of infection, as well as training health workers to be able to identify and treat it.

The Health Ministry has called for "more vigilance" from all health workers who are "requested to wear personal protective gear at all times of examining patients presenting at a health facility".

However, the country faces severe socioeconomic, health, educational and infrastructural challenges: 98 percent of its revenue was lost after the shutdown of oil production in January; there are only 100km of paved roads in a country bigger than France; illiteracy is widespread; and ethnic tensions continue to simmer in Jonglei State - to mention just a few of the factors hampering effective implementation of anti-Ebola measures.

The UN Development Agency (UNDP) said in July, as South Sudan celebrated its first birthday, that hospitals outside the capital had started to run out of drugs. Other donors say the government has stopped buying basics, leading to chronic shortages of medicines nationwide.

Misplaced optimism?

Despite this, Moi said he was sure that if Ebola struck, the government would rush in supplies somehow.

"If it hits, we are already prepared. South Sudan's health system is not as strong as Uganda's but I think we have the tools and the means to prevent and contain an outbreak", said Abubakar.

Moi said premises previously used for cholera cases existed for up to 30 people if Ebola strikes the capital.

"We in the hospital, we are ready. We have the quarantine so if there is any such disease we will admit them to isolation. We can take more than 20, maybe 30, into isolation", he said.

Moi said Juba Hospital is not yet on high alert. "It is still early for us and it was only yesterday that the Ministry of Health talked about this [Ebola] so in the coming days people will be alert, but we never saw one patient with this yet," he said.

No vaccine has been found for the highly infectious disease, which WHO says has a fatality ratio of 23-90 percent. Transmitted through touch, fluids and waste from a living or dead person, it causes fever which can lead to bleeding from orifices and death within days.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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