Start of Ebola vaccinations in Uganda tells more of setbacks, continued hurdles, than progress

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The announcement Wednesday that vaccinations against Ebola have begun for Uganda health workers in districts bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo “even before Uganda detects a single case,” as the World Health Organization put it, can be seen, as the agency’s release said, as evidence that “health authorities are being cautious, having learnt bitter lessons from previous outbreaks.”

But it can also be seen, as the same announcement puts it, as acknowledgement that “it is highly likely that Uganda may import [Ebola virus disease] from DRC given the closeness of the current epicenter, the high population movements due to tread, social-cultural connections and easy accessibility of health services in Uganda.”

Or it can be seen as an essential step toward incremental control of an outbreak that as the first Ebola epidemic to take place in a war zone, as a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies released the week before describes, is eluding control.

The yields of progress, largely stemming from urgent but overdue action during the 2013-to-2016 West Africa Ebola crisis, are all the more critical, but also continue to be stubbornly undermined, by yet-to-be addressed obstacles. The day after the start of vaccinations in Uganda, a WHO update noted that 27,000 people have been vaccinated against Ebola, just in recent months, and in a radical change since the West Africa crisis, when the only care in the most effected countries was palliative, now “almost every new patient receives one of 4 investigational treatments, something which was never previously possible during an Ebola outbreak.”

The international community no longer ignores Ebola, communications from WHO as well as from the DRC health ministry say. By the day Uganda started vaccinating health workers, a delegation that included WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping operations visited response teams, security officials, civil society, and workers constructing a new Ebola treatment center in Beni, an epicenter of the outbreak.

But the same announcement from the DRC health ministry that told of that visit also included news that rebels in Matembo, a village near Beni, had taken hostage a team comprised of one epidemiologist and three “civil protection agents” there to assist in the safe burial of an apparent Ebola victim. Fortunately, after an alert to security officials, that report concluded, “the hostages were found safe and sound.”

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