By Gabriel-Eddie Njoroge
It’s been ten months since the confirmation of an ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo and one week since the disease was detected in Uganda, raising fears among Kenyans of a possible outbreak in the country.
This was exacerbated by news of a possible infection in Kericho County, Kenya of a woman who had symptoms similar to those of hemorrhagic fever which is associated with Ebola. The woman, it was reported, had traveled from Busia County on the Kenya-Uganda border to Uganda to visit her husband.
Considering the confirmed case in Uganda, it was feared that she may have contracted the disease and was therefore quarantined at the Kericho County Referral Hospital. Fortunately, it was a false alarm and her tests turned out negative.
“Blood samples from the woman currently admitted in the isolation unit have been confirmed to be negative for Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers,” said Sicily Kariuki, the Kenyan Health Cabinet Secretary.
She was speaking at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where she had gone to inspect the screening procedures in place at the point of entry, which are being implemented at other points of entry across the country.
There have been fears across the East African region about the region’s preparedness for dealing with the outbreak of the disease.
For a time, the situation had been contained and progress was being made in combating the disease across the DRC which had borne the brunt of the disease. But the news of the disease in Uganda and fears of the disease in Kenya bring to light the enormity of the task ahead of trying to monitor and maintain order at points of entry.
International borders are porous at best across the region and people are in fact much more likely to cross into a neighboring country without even going through a formal border crossing.
This was evident in the Ugandan case where a family of 14 traveled from Uganda to the DRC across the formal border crossing. However, when returning, while most of them crossed at the formal crossing, five evaded the main port of entry, instead crossing informally. Those five arrived with symptoms that included diarrhea and bleeding. This implies a period of illness in the DRC and that they were most likely symptomatic while travelling.
As a result, according to reports, a five year old boy and grandmother succumbed to the disease, while a three year old boy had been treated and sent back to the DRC for further checking and treatment due to the facilities in DRC being better equipped to deal with the disease because of the ongoing outbreak in the country.
A further group of people who had in various ways been in contact with the infected, estimated to be in the region of over 90, were said to be under observation for any sign of infection.
According to Dr. Julius Wekesa who was speaking at a World Health Organization (WHO) Media Breakfast on the 14th of June, WHO and other partners were deliberating on the spread of the disease on the Kenyan side and the government had announced a high alert at all points of entry having instituted a minimum package of readiness to coordinate and combat the disease across the country if it crosses into Kenya.
He also stated that the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had convened an emergency meeting to deliberate if Ebola is a public health emergency later that day.
At that meeting, WHO did not declare the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has now spread to Uganda, a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), this being the third time they met to consider this.
The decision caught many off-guard since several experts had urged that declaration back in February, noting that the outbreak in the DRC already met the definition of PHEIC which is, ‘an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.’
During the breakfast, Dr. Julius Banda from the WHO stated that Kenya was coordinating with its partners in its emergency preparedness efforts.
Dr. Banda said one of the measures being taken was the running of exercises at the Namanga border to simulate the progression of Ebola if the infection crosses over the border between Kenya and Tanzania. He stated that the scope of the simulation would cover all diseases mimicking Ebola, such as The Rift Valley Fever.
Health experts advocate for regular checkups and advise the public to be vigilant of Ebola symptoms that include severe headache, fever, fatigue and abdominal pain and unexplained excessive bleeding.
They also advise travelers going to areas prone to the disease to familiarize themselves with the WHO guidelines on prevention and in case of contraction, its treatment and steps to take to minimize spread.