Kampala (AFP) – Uganda will begin vaccinating health workers against Ebola next week as the threat of the spread of the deadly virus from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo increases, said the Health Minister on Friday.
An outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has so far claimed 180 lives. Given the high number of people crossing the border, the health risk of cross-border transmission from Ebola to Uganda has been assessed as very high, said Minister Jane Ruth Aceng.
"Compassionate use of the Ebola vaccine for health and frontline workers," she will start on Monday, she told journalists.
It is the first time that the vaccine has been used in a country where there is no Ebola outbreak.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo's Ministry of Health said Thursday it had registered 285 possible Ebola cases in the very troubled northeastern region of North Kivu, which has several armed groups.
It is the tenth Ebola outbreak in the country, then called Zaire, where the disease was first discovered in 1976.
Since August, more than 25,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received an experimental vaccine.
Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the representative of the World Health Organization in Uganda, said the vaccine – rVSV-ZEBOV – was nearly 100 percent effective and associated with few risks.
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"So far, no major risks have been identified, just a normal reaction to a vaccine," he said.
The drug attacks the Zaire virus species, the "most vicious of Ebola types," Woldemariam said.
Concerns that an undocumented Ebola patient might come to a healthcare facility that has undergone treatment led to the decision to vaccinate health care workers at the highest risk of contracting the highly contagious haemorrhagic fever in 40 facilities near the border.
The authorities insist that the vaccine is completely voluntary and that frontline workers – who may include hospital cleaners and other support staff – need "informed consent".
"There are currently 2,100 doses of the rVSV vaccine available," said Aceng, with plans to increase the number to 3,000.
Although not yet approved, the "investigational vaccine" has been used in previous Ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Sierra Leone and DR Congo on the recommendation of the WHO expert group.
The drug was donated by its manufacturer Merck free of charge to the Ugandan government.
In the most severe epidemic of Ebola to date, the epidemic hit the West African states of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2013-15, killing more than 11,300 people.