Several dozen medics and support staff have fled western Uganda after their coworkers became infected with the Ebola virus in an outbreak that has already killed 18 people, officials said Saturday.
Ugandan officials clamped a quarantine on the Bundibugyo region and appealed for help in dealing with the outbreak of Ebola, a contagious disease that kills up to 90 percent of those infected.
However efforts to contain the outbreak, which began in September but was definitively identified as Ebola only last week, have been hampered by medical personnel becoming infected and others fleeing.
"We have a shortage of health workers and we need more because those who were there on the ground have been infected: two doctors, a medical officer and a nurse," said Sam Zaramba, the country's top government physician.
"Health workers are terribly afraid. They have abandoned patients in health units for fear of being infected," a government official told the state-owned New Vision newspaper.
A health official for the Bundibugyo region, who asked not to be named, estimated the number of health and support staff to have abandoned their posts to be several dozen.
Zaramba said earlier Saturday that two more patients had succumbed to the virus in the region, bringing the toll to 18.
"Cumulatively, there are 18 deaths and 61 cases," he said.
A total of 19 patients were quarantined in Bundibugyo hospital near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which itself has had harrowing experience with the virulent disease.
"Those admitted are mainly health workers and those who attended to the patients," Zaramba told AFP.
Previous Ebola fatalities among medical workers have been blamed on poor sanitation and hygiene in health centres that lack protective suits, respirator masks, latex gloves and other necessary safety gear.
Ebola spreads through contact of body fluids, particularly blood, putting health workers who lack protective gear at risk.
"The situation is not yet under control. The main challenge we are facing is detecting cases and following up on those who made contacts with the patients," Zaramba added.
A team of epidemiologists and virologists arrived in the region on Saturday to try to retrace backwards the source of the virus as part of a campaign to avoid future epidemics.
Authorities on Friday said the outbreak was an unknown strain after analysis was done on tissue samples at the laboratories of the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control.
Known Ebola subtypes usually attack capillaries and blood vessel linings, draining the body of blood through openings, leaving the patient to die in shock, doctors say.
But the new Uganda subtype kills patients by provoking high fever, but without much loss of blood.
There is no vaccine or cure for Ebola.
On Saturday, Rwandan authorities announced they had tightened border health controls to prevent if from travelling across the frontier from western Uganda.
Experts say the disease is usually containable because it kills its victims faster that it can spread to new ones.
An outbreak killed at least 170 people in Uganda's northern Gulu district in 2000. Another in recent weeks killed at least 26 people in DR Congo's West Kasai region.
The Ebola virus was first identified in 1976 in Sudan and in a nearby region of DRC, then Zaire. Outbreaks of Ebola have also occurred in the Ivory Coast and Gabon.