It may seem like Christmas is coming early for students in Uganda as millions of them head home early for school holidays on Friday. Still, the decision has been made to close schools across the country two weeks before the end of the school year to stem the spread of Ebola as the country continues to battle one of its worst outbreaks.
It also contradicts the government’s official position that everything is under control.
In the past two months, 55 people have died from the virus — and there were 22 probable Ebola deaths before the outbreak was officially declared on Sept. 20.
Some experts have expressed reservations about closing schools, arguing that keeping students indoors for another two weeks would be a better way to halt the spread of the deadly disease, as the incubation period is two days to can take three weeks.
Ebola is a viral infection that is spread through a patient’s bodily fluids.
Many of the children who attend boarding schools will have to travel long distances across the country.
“They will be packed into buses, minibuses and private cars, maximizing the opportunity for people to interact very closely,” public health expert Dr Olive Kobusingye, a senior research fellow at Makerere University School and the University of South Africa, told me. . the UKTN.
“It’s the last thing Uganda needs right now.”
But it is not a decision taken lightly, given that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Uganda imposed the longest school closure in the world, at 22 months.
Visits from parents prohibited
Education Minister Janet Museveni, who is also the wife of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, made the announcement earlier this month following 23 cases in five schools in Kampala, which led to the deaths of eight students.
The infections in the capital were linked to a man who had traveled there from the western Mubende district, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The fear is that schools could now act as a reservoir – something authorities in urban areas want to avoid.
Schools had already implemented strict anti-Ebola measures – many of which were already in place for Covid – including temperature screening, regular hand washing and surface disinfection.
Visits from parents and guardians were then banned as the last term of the year came to an end and senior students prepared for exams.
For Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng, organizing final exam trips for students to and from Mubende and Kassanda, one of the worst affected districts, has been of paramount importance.
Both areas are still closed, meaning residents cannot leave and access is restricted unless they come via the main road.
Children are dropped off at designated points, from where they board buses provided by government and international organizations supporting the Ebola response.
These buses take them to designated stops in their home area where parents can pick them up.
“This is to make sure the parents don’t go to the two districts and the students coming out of boarding schools don’t go to communities,” Dr Aceng told the UKTN.
Students returning to Mubende and Kassanda must first travel to Kampala, where they will be put on buses and taken to a central meeting point in their own district.
They will be fully briefed in advance on how to protect themselves.
Worry in quarantine
Uganda has experienced multiple Ebola outbreaks over the past 22 years, but the current one is by far the most widespread and has been reported in nine districts, mainly in the central regions.
Like four previous epidemics, this one is from the Sudan strain, for which there is no approved vaccine or treatment, unlike the more common Zaire strain, which is responsible for West Africa’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak.
The government has said trials for three vaccines will begin in the coming weeks, although there are few details about how and on whom they will be conducted.
There is good news from Kagadi and Bunyangabu districts, where 42 days have passed with no new infection – doubling the incubation period.
The Kyegegwa district has also had no new case for a few weeks, giving response teams hope that the control measures are working.
But the challenge remains with people identified as contacts of confirmed cases who then travel without notifying health professionals.
The outbreaks in Jinja and Masaka were caused by two infected people traveling separately from Kampala.
Critics believe this is an indication that the Department of Health lacks the capacity to deal with containment – and are concerned about the thoroughness of the contact tracing.
“I think the data that has been released is confirmed data, but I don’t believe it is complete,” ActionAid’s Xavier Ejoyi told the UKTN.
In response, the health minister acknowledged she could not say their quarantine or identification of cases was “100% foolproof”, but expressed confidence that surveillance teams could quickly identify any missed cases.
Lieutenant Colonel Dr Henry Bosa, the commander of the country’s Ebola incident, agreed, telling the UKTN: “If we were to hide data, the evidence would be out – we would see people dying en masse.”
However, he admitted that enumerating contacts in urban environments was complex and speed was important.
In January, students will return to class for the new school year.
The health ministry estimates the outbreak could end in February or March – although Dr Aceng had a clear warning that this would only be the case if people obeyed prevention measures.
“The end of this epidemic depends a lot on the communities,” she said.