Uganda Doctor Narrowly Escapes Ebola, Back to Save More Lives

by Medindia Content Team on  December 17, 2007 at 2:37 PM Tropical Disease News
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Stephen Kaddu Ssesanga talks in staccato bursts, as if he were still in the throes of the Ebola virus he contracted while trying to treat the victims of a deadly outbreak in western Uganda.
Uganda Doctor Narrowly Escapes Ebola, Back to Save More Lives
Uganda Doctor Narrowly Escapes Ebola, Back to Save More Lives

But speaking from his home in Bundibugyo, the epicentre of an epidemic that has already killed 35 people, the 48-year-old doctor has only one thing on his mind following his narrow escape: returning to work and saving more lives.

"I am now at home convalescing and ready to go back and help others," said the head of the Bundibuygo government hospital, where he contracted Ebola through contact with patients before the virulent disease was diagnosed.

He was not wearing adequate protective gear and ended up in an isolation ward, suffering from Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever whose symptoms can initially be mistaken for more common but less dangerous diseases.

The virus, which has appeared in different countries across Africa over the years, has a high mortality rate and is characterised by dramatic symptoms, including rapid organ damage and external hemorrhaging.

"We were not prepared for Ebola and for quite some time were just talking about a unique illness and no one knew we were handling a dangerous situation," Ssesanga explained.

Ugandan officials believe this particular strain of the virus first appeared in September, wending its way through the western district of Bundibugyo unnoticed.

Doctors, including Ssesanga, misdiagnosed it, unwittingly fostering the outbreak, until samples were flown to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control laboratory.

"We cannot blame anybody because this was a new strain. Three attempts to find out what it was turned out to be negative," the doctor said.

"By that time, we had begun taking some precautions but not those tight precautions needed for hemorrhagic fevers and it was already too late," he said.

Ssesanga does not know exactly when he contracted the virus -- when he treated the first victims of a then mysterious disease or during the care he dispensed to patients in isolation wards later on.

"What is more important is that I don't know how I have survived," he said. "I don't know a word which could express it better but this was more than a narrow escape... I had a will to live and God had mercy on me."

"I cannot explain the pain I went through. It was massive," he said.

Five of his colleagues were not so lucky, and were swept away by the virus.

The Bundibugyo strain of Ebola appears less reliably deadly than others observed elsewhere in recent years, which killed up to 90 percent of those infected.

According to figures released by the health ministry, 119 people have been infected in western Uganda, 35 of whom have died.

"In Bundibugyo district, nine people are currently admitted in Kikyo health centre and eight in Bundibugyo hospital," the ministry said in a statement.

"On a positive note, five patients were discharged yesterday from Bundibugyo hospital. The cumulative total of patients discharged since the epidemic was confirmed is 24," it added.

Ssesanga, superintendent at the 104-bed Bundibugyo hospital for almost 10 years, was one of them.

The number of admissions is declining and health officials hope the outbreak is being contained but Ssesegan already has his mind on what Uganda -- experiencing its second Ebola crisis in 10 years -- should do to improve.

"Health authorities need to intensify education so that control measures are observed in all health centres," said Ssesanga, who wants guidelines to ensure that medical staff are able to treat patients.

In the meantime, his priority is to fully recover and soldier on.

"I am not worried to go back to serve. I even think now that my body has developed some immunity, but of course this may be for this type of strain only," he explained.

Ebola fever was named after a small Democratic Republic of Congo river where it was discovered in 1976.

According to experts, despite being extremely virulent, the disease is containable because it kills its victims faster than it can spread to new ones.

Source: AFP

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