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Treating Ebola; A Tale of Three Ugandan Frontline Health Workers

At the pronouncement that it was Ebola that his colleague had succumbed to, Dr Madira says he began ‘counting coffins’ in his house. " I had treated my neighbour every day. I visited her home twice a day. I sat on her bed. Checked her temperature. I knew I was next."
10 Sep 2019 17:44
According to the frontline health workers working in an Ebola Treatment Unit is better than being in a community where people might be sick

Audio 7

The mention of Ebola has often left hospital wards empty, with no doctors or patients willing to be exposed to the deadly viral disease. But for three Ugandan doctors, being in the midst of an Ebola outbreak was a call of duty that they could not ignore. 

The three doctors have treated Ebola patients both in Uganda and elsewhere in the world. They were among the frontline workers who were taking on a disease that caused major loss of life and socioeconomic disruption in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone between 2013 and 2016.

But even with such experience, they describe their stay at Ebola Treatment Units as scary, yet safe. One of them, Dr Kefa Madira, a Senior Clinical Officer at the Ministry of Health had his first interaction with Ebola Virus Disease in July 2012 when a colleague at Kagadi General Hospital fell ill. 

According to Dr Madira, everyone referred to it as a strange disease killing people in a neighbouring district; a number of others thought it was malaria. At the time of the Kibaale outbreak, Uganda has reported three outbreaks. One in 2000 in Gulu, another in Bundibugyo in 2007 and the Luweero outbreak in 2011. 

However, even then, it took a while for health officials to identify the strange disease that was killing people as Ebola.  On a daily basis, Dr Madira was in contact with his friend, a neighbour back at home. He says they only found out after samples were taken to Uganda Virus Research Institute that he was suffering from Ebola.   

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At the pronouncement that it was Ebola that his colleague had succumbed to, Dr Madira says he began ‘counting coffins’ in his house. " I had treated my neighbour every day. I visited her home twice a day. I sat on her bed. Checked her temperature. I knew I was next." 

To try and reduce that he asked the ministry to allow him to stay at the Ebola Treatment Unit because he was scared of spreading the disease to his family. In subsequent outbreaks, he says fear has been something he carried around. 

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Dr Madira says taking precaution in his house has kept his family alive. During an outbreak, they quarantine the house and check their temperatures often to make sure their five children are safe. His wife too is a health worker and has often been deployed at Ebola Treatment Units.   

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At his place of work and in the community, Dr Madira says he faced stigma when everyone found out he had treated people with Ebola. “People are scared of being near people who have been within an Ebola unit,” he says. 

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Another medical worker, Dr Michael Mulowooza, currently employed at Hoima Regional Referral hospital looks back at the time he spent treating Ebola and describes his experience as mentally straining and tedious.   

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Dr Makanga Kizito, the head of the Naguru Hospital Isolation Unit and Ebola Treatment Unit says health workers cannot afford to become complacent during an outbreak. He says any mistake can lead to death.   

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In August 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo -DRC declared an Ebola outbreak that has so affected 3,000 people. Uganda has had four spilt cases, the recent being a 9-year-old girl who passed away a week ago from Kasese district having entered the country through Mpondwe border post. 

To better prepare health workers, the ministry of health has trained more than 2,000 health workers in the country. More than 100 of these have experience in treating the disease from previous outbreaks. 

With a published book on Ebola under his name, Dr Madira says the ever-increasing Ebola situation in DRC can be reduced by involving the community. He says even if a vaccine is introduced but the community involvement is ignored, the situation is not about to improve. 

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Uganda has lost more than 20 doctors in all the outbreaks the country has declared. In the first outbreak that occurred in Gulu, at least 16 health workers are recorded to have died by the health ministry. Among them was Dr Matthew Lukwiya of Lacor hospital.