Monrovia — Dianah Mutooro, the widow of a Ugandan doctor Sam Mutooro who died of Ebola fever in Liberia is requesting that the Uganda government do all it can to have her fallen husband's body returned to Uganda for a decent burial.
Against insurmountable odds and the unconventional manner in which Ebola strikes its victims, getting the body back to Uganda could prove difficult for Dianah, meaning she would never get to visit her husband's burial site unless she flies to Liberia.
The widow's request to have her husband's body exhumed and returned to Uganda is renewing debate over one of the major problems Liberia and other countries where the outbreak has hit are having - convincing families that it is very dangerous to be exposed to Ebola corpses.
In Dr. Mutooro's case, the family appears hopeful: Rev. Jehoida Baluku Mutoro, the deceased's elder brother, is quoted in the Ugandan Vision newspaper as saying that the family looks forward to bringing back Mutoro's body for burial in Uganda. He said they have been told the body will be Ebola-free after 21 days.
"We have got information that after 21 days of the body being in the soil, it becomes Ebola free. If that is true, we shall not bother to fly to Liberia but fly his body back to his ancestral home if the government helps us."
Muhindo Moris, a resident from Dr. Mutooro's village alluded to similar possibility in an email to FrontPageAfrica: "We finally finished the funeral rites for Dr. Sam yesterday. However, the government promised that they are working hand in hand with Liberia and Dr. Sam is going to be exhumed and brought back to Ugandan in two months from now."
"We have got information that after 21 days of the body being in the soil, it becomes Ebola free. If that is true, we shall not bother to fly to Liberia but fly his body back to his ancestral home if the government helps us." - Rev. Baluku Mutoro, Brother of the deceased
'Scientifically, We Cannot Do That'
Mr. Tolbert Nyensuah Assistant Minister of Health for Preventive Services disagrees. "The Liberian government cannot send the body back. The body was buried with high level of respect and ceremony was conducted under care and supervision. Scientifically, we cannot do that. Uganda dealt with Ebola before, they know."
Ms Dianah Mutoro, Her husband died of ebola. Photo by Colleb Mugume
Diana Muhumuza with her three children and other mourners arriving for a requiem service for her late husband at St. James Cathedral Ruharo in Mbarara on Thursday. PHOTO/Fred Turyakira
Uganda last suffered an Ebola outbreak in 2012 and at least four people died of the disease at the time. At least 467 people have died of Ebola in the three countries, out of the 759 reported cases, according to the World Health Organization(WHO).
Dr. Olimpia de la Rosa, MSF Emergency Coordinator explained in 2012 that the first case in Uganda was a three-month-old girl whose mother was also sick. "When the girl passed away, her family tried to find out what she had died from but couldn't find the answer--though there were rumors of witchcraft and magic. Sixty-five people attended the little girl's funeral, 15 of whom became sick, and 11 of whom have since died."
Dr. De La Rosa added: "Ebola is so contagious, and spreads through contact with bodily fluids, funerals are a real cause for concern, especially if protective measures are not taken when handling the body. "The majority of deaths in this(Uganda) outbreak are of people who attended the little girl's funeral."
Assistant Minister Tolbert explained that unless the WHO or appropriate international health agencies gives the green light, it could be nearly impossible to have Dr. Mutooro's body exhumed and extradited.
Widow Required Quarantine to Attend Funeral
Nyensuah said health authorities in Liberia did all it could to get the fallen doctor's widow to attend his funeral to no avail because of the complications of the way he died. "She (Mrs. Mutooro) was told by the Ugandan government that if she came to Liberia for the funeral, she would have to be quarantined for 21 days. That's why she couldn't come. She was told that she would be quarantined. I haven't read anywhere where you can exhume body after 21 days and return body back, It would be impossible."
According to the WHO, there is a high risk of transmission in a health facility when an Ebola patient dies because the bodies and body fluids of deceased VHF patients remain contagious for several days after death. Family and community members are also at risk if burial practices involve touching and washing the body.
The Ugandan government has advised Ugandans to limit their travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, which have been hit by the Ebola epidemic, but has not issued a travel ban to the three countries, the Ugandan Monitor newspaper reported. Ugandans with relatives in the affected countries were advised to 'keep on the alert in case their relatives return to the country during this period. Disease surveillance checks have been put up at border points, especially for people coming from the affected countries, Rugunda disclosed.
The WHO warns that families of victims must be aware of cultural practices and religious beliefs because when Ebola strikes, some practices cannot be done because they place the family or others at risk for exposure. Burial sites for Ebola victims requires that the grave should be at least 2 meters deep, according to the WHO.
Died Helping 'Neglected' Patient
At Mutooro's funeral Friday, the Ugandan government paid tribute to the fallen specialist who succumbed to Ebola last Tuesday. Mutooro, 44, a senior surgeon based in Liberia, died at the John F. Kennedy Medical Centre Monrovia, where he was being treated. He had been working in Liberia for three years as a specialist at the Redemption Hospital in New Krul town on a contract with the Liberian government and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Uganda's Health Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, according to the Ugandan Vision Newspaper, described Muhumuza's death as a big loss to Uganda and Africa. John Baptist Mujuni, the master of ceremonies for Mutooro's memorial said the family would have loved to see his remains in the casket before mourners, "but due to the circumstances under which he died, we are unable to. He has been a diligent and committed health worker, our ambassador and died in a country where they lack medical workers."
Mutooro's widow, Diana said her husband contracted the virus as he tried to attend to a patient who had been neglected by other medical personnel. "On Friday, I called him and he told me that he was putting onto oxygen a patient who had been neglected. After some days, he told me that he developed high fever and was waiting for the test results," she narrated at her husband's memorial, according to the Monitor.
"Before his passing on, Muhumuza called his wife again and told her that he had been put indoors and the hospital had been closed for two weeks, following the outbreak. Mrs. Muhumuza said after receiving the news of his death, they booked a ticket to go and see where he was buried, but were advised against the trip."
Dr. Mutooro is the third Ugandan doctor to die from Ebola. The others were Dr. Matthew Lukwiya and Dr. John Kule, who died of Ebola as they tried to save patients in Gulu and Bundibugyo hospitals respectively in Uganda. Dr. Mutooro is survived by a wife and three children. He was born a day after the death of his father, the late Samuel Bagheni Mutoro, in an accident. He was raised by Constantine Bwambale, the former prime minister of Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu, the Monitor reported.