Ebola fears push Uganda to close schools early for Christmas

A student takes notes in class, Kisoro, Uganda

For students in Uganda, Christmas appears to have come early as millions of students head home early when schools close on Friday. However, a decision has been made to close schools across the country for two weeks before term ends in an effort to curb the spread of Ebola as the country continues to grapple with one of its worst outbreaks.

It is also at odds with the government’s official stance that “everything is under control”.

In the past two months, 55 people have died from the virus — 22 people may have died from Ebola before the outbreak was officially declared on September 20.

Some experts have expressed reservations about school closures, arguing that keeping students out for another two weeks is a better way to stop the spread of the deadly disease, given that the incubation period can last from two days to three weeks.

Ebola is a viral infection that spreads through bodily fluids of a sick person.

Many children who attend boarding school will travel long distances across the country.

“They will be crammed into buses, minibuses and private cars, providing the greatest opportunity for people to come into close contact,” said Dr Olive Kobusingye, a senior research fellow at Makerere University College and the University of South Africa and a public health expert. BBC.

“This is the last thing Uganda needs right now.”

But it was not a decision taken lightly – given that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Uganda imposed the world’s longest school closure, which lasted 22 months.

Parental Visitation Banned

Education Minister Janet Museveni, who is also the wife of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, made the announcement earlier this month after five schools in Kampala There were 23 cases, resulting in the death of 8 students.

The infection in the capital is linked to a man who traveled there from Mubende district, west of the epicenter of the outbreak.

Ebola prevention signage seen in Mubende, Uganda, on October 14

Nine regions, including the capital, have been affected by the outbreak

Worryingly, schools can now act as water reservoirs – something authorities hope to avoid in urban areas.

The school has implemented strict anti-Ebola measures – many of which have been adopted in response to the new coronavirus – including temperature screenings, regular hand washing and disinfection of surfaces.

As the final term of the year draws to a close and final year students preparing for exams, parent and guardian visits are banned.

For Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng, organizing end-of-term trips for students to and from Mubende and Kassanda, another hardest-hit area, was crucial.

Both areas remain under lockdown, meaning residents cannot leave and access is restricted unless passing by on major highways.

Children will be dropped off at designated locations, after which they will board buses provided by governments and international organizations supporting the Ebola response.

These buses will take them to a designated stop in their hometown where their parents can pick them up.

Dr Aceng told the BBC that “this is to make sure parents don’t come into those two areas and boarding school students don’t come into” the community at the epicenter of the outbreak.

Students returning to Mubende and Kassanda must first travel to Kampala, where they will be put on a bus and taken to the main meeting point in their area.

They will know well in advance how to protect themselves.

Quarantine issue

Uganda has dealt with multiple Ebola outbreaks over the past 22 years, but the current Ebola outbreak is the most widespread to date, with reports in nine districts, mostly in the central region.

As in the four previous epidemics, this time it is the Sudanese strain for which there is no approved vaccine or treatment, unlike the more common Zaire strain responsible for the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded in West Africa.

“If we hide any data, the evidence disappears – we’ll see people die en masse”, Source: Henry Bosa, Source description: Uganda Ebola Incident Commander, Photo: Henry Bosa

The government has said it will begin trials of the three vaccines in the coming weeks, but details of how and on whom are unclear.

There is good news from Kagadi and Bunyangabu districts, where there have been no new infections for the past 42 days – doubling the incubation period.

The Kyegegwa region has also seen no new cases for several weeks, giving response teams hope that containment measures are working.

But the challenge remains that contacts who are identified as confirmed cases then travel without informing health workers.

The outbreaks in Jinja and Masaka were sparked by two infected people who separately left Kampala.

Critics see this as a sign of the health ministry’s inability to contain – and worry about the thoroughness of contact tracing.

“I think the data published there is proven data, but I don’t think it’s exhaustive,” ActionAid’s Xavier Ejoyi told the BBC.

In response, the health minister conceded she could not say their isolation or case identification was “100% airtight”, but expressed confidence that the surveillance team could quickly identify any missed cases.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bosa, the country’s Ebola incident commander, agreed, telling the BBC: “If we withhold any data, the evidence will come out – we’ll see people dying en masse.”

However, he acknowledged that listing contacts in an urban environment is complex and speed is important.

Students will return to classrooms for the new school year in January.

The Ministry of Health estimates that the outbreak could be over by February or March – although Dr Aceng explicitly warns that this will only be the case if people observe precautionary measures.

“The end of this epidemic depends very much on the community,” she said.

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