Ebola resurfaces in Uganda–history and analyses of Ugandan Ebola

Uganda just can’t catch a break. They’ve recently been hit with nodding disease, a mysterious syndrome where children repeatedly nod their heads and undergo serious seizures, typically leading to death. Now they’re in the grips of another Ebola outbreak. This will be the fourth time the country has suffered through Ebola since 2000, when the virus was first found in the country:

The first occurred in August of 2000; the first case died in Gulu on the 17th of September. Despite an investigation, doctors were unable to determine where or how she had contracted the disease. Her death was followed by the deaths of her husband, two children, and several other family members. This was reported to the Ministry of Health in October of that year, near the peak of the epidemic. An investigation and intervention to control the disease followed, and the epidemic was declared to be over in January of 2001. A total of 425 patients from 3 villages (Gulu, Masindi, and Mbarara) across Uganda were identified based on symptoms and/or laboratory data. 224 of them died, with a resulting mortality rate of 53%; an eerie echo of the 1976 Ebola outbreak in Sudan. Indeed, sequence analysis showed the infecting strain to be the Sudan subtype of Ebola; the first time this type had surfaced since the 1979 outbreak in Sudan. It is hypothesized that Sudanese rebels, who carried out regular attacks around Gulu, may have accidentally introduced the virus in some manner, though this has not been confirmed.

Ebola returned to Uganda in August of 2007, causing 149 illnesses and 37 deaths until the outbreak was declared over in February of 2008. This mortality (36%) was significantly lower than most Ebola outbreaks. Interestingly, when scientists tested this virus, it also reacted strangely with their assays. Therefore, they determined the entire molecular sequence of the virus, and found that it was a whole new strain of Ebola, which they named Ebola Bundibugyo.

The third outbreak occurred just last year, as a single case in a 12-year-old girl, who died of the infection. I’ve not been able to find any follow-up identifying the 2011 strain, but Uganda has been hit previously by both the Sudan and the novel Bundibugyo strains of Ebola, and the current outbreak has been identified once again as Ebola Sudan.

In the current outbreak, which began in the Kibaale district in western-central Uganda, at least 20 have been affected and 14 have died. As of today, an additional six cases are suspected but not yet confirmed, and it appears to be affecting more than one village in the district. One death has also occurred at Mulago hospital in the capital of Kampala. The individual who died was reported to be:

… a health worker who “had attended to the dead at Kagadi hospital” in Kibale, Health Minister Christine Ondoa told reporters.

She is believed to have travelled independently to Kampala — possibly on public transport — after her three-month old baby died, Ondoa added.

Reports also note that other health care workers are in quarantine as a precaution. In Africa, Ebola has really been able to spread in previous outbreaks for two reasons: breakdowns in barrier nursing within hospitals (not wearing gloves/gowns; reusing needles; lack of handwashing/sanitation, etc.) and ritual funeral practices within villages, which put many family members in contact with the virus as they assist with cleansing the victim. Indeed, it appears that 9 of the deaths in this outbreak have come from a single family, so it’s quite possible many were sickened using this type of practice. However, now that Ebola has been confirmed and people are aware of this, stricter controls over these practices can be implemented, and health care workers are being urged to report any cases that may be Ebola to authorities.

Kampala is a city of a bit over a million people on Lake Victoria, southeast of the Kibaale district. The 2011 case originated from Luwero district, due east of the Kibaale district and north of Kampala. The 2000 outbreak occurred in the Gulu district in the north of the country, and the 2007 outbreak in the Bundibugyo district, in the west and neighboring Kibaale. It would seem that Ebola reservoirs (likely fruit bats) could very well be spread across Uganda’s central region, occasionally spilling over into the human populations and igniting these outbreaks. One story notes that “The site where most of the cases occurred are close to Kibale forest where there are a lot of monkeys and birdlife,” and while bats are not explicitly mentioned, they presumably would also be present. Non-human primates have also been implicated in previous outbreaks of Ebola as an amplifying species.

The reporting of the current outbreak was delayed, as patients didn’t have any noticeable bleeding–rather, diarrhea and vomiting were the main reported symptoms. However, while many reports I’ve seen are characterizing hemorrhagic symptoms as “typical,” these aren’t seen in all patients, and indeed the diarrhea, vomiting, and even hiccups are common symptoms of Ebola infection. As such, Uganda has been playing a bit of catch-up, but has certainly learned since the first (and worst) outbreak in 2000. Hopefully this one will end fairly quickly.

Using zombies to teach science

With my colleague Greg Tinkler, I spent an afternoon last week at a local public library talking to kids about zombies:

The Zombie Apocalypse is coming. Will you be ready? University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara Smith will talk about how a zombie virus might spread and how you can prepare. Get a list of emergency supplies to go home and build your own zombie kit, just in case. Find out what to do when the zombies come from neuroscientist Dr. Greg Tinkler. As a last resort, if you can’t beat them, join them. Disguise yourself as a zombie and chow down on brrraaaaiiins, then go home and freak out your parents.

Why zombies? Obviously they’re a hot topic right now, particularly with the ascendance of The Walking Dead. They’re all over ComicCon. There are many different versions so the “rules” regarding zombies are flexible, and they can be used to teach all different kinds of scientific concepts–and more importantly, to teach kids how to *think* about translating some of this knowledge into practice (avoiding a zombie pandemic, surviving one, etc.) We ended up with about 30 people there: about 25 kids (using the term loosely, they ranged in age from maybe age 10 to 18 or so) and a smattering of adults. I covered the basics of disease transmission, then discussed how it applied to a potential “zombie germ,” while Greg explained how understanding the neurobiology of zombies can aid in fleeing from or killing them. The kids were involved, asked great questions, and even taught both of us a thing or two (and gave us additional zombie book recommendations!)

For infectious diseases, there are all kinds of literature-backed scenarios that can get kids discussing germs and epidemiology. People can die and reanimate as zombies, or they can just turn into infected “rage monsters” who try to eat you without actually dying first. They can have an extensive incubation period, or they can zombify almost immediately. Each situation calls for different types of responses–while the “living” zombies may be able to be killed in a number of different ways, for example, reanimated zombies typically can only be stopped by destroying the brains. Discussing these situations allows the kids to use critical thinking skills, to plan attacks and think through choice of weapons, escape routes and vehicles, and consider what they might need in a survival kit.

Likewise, zombie microbes can be spread through biting, through blood, through the air, by fomites or water, even by mosquitoes in some books. Agents can be viral, bacterial, fungal, prions or parasitic insect larvae (or combinations of those). Mulling on these different types of transmission issues and asking simple questions:

“How would you protect yourself if infection was spread through the air versus only spread by biting?”

“How well would isolation of infected people work if the incubation period is very long versus very short?”

“Why might you want to thoroughly wash your zombie-killing arrows before using them to kill squirrels, which you will then eat?” (ahem, Daryl)

can open up avenues of discussion into scientific issues that the kids don’t even realize they’re talking about (pandemic preparedness, for one). And the great thing is that these kids are *already experts* on the subject matter. They don’t have to learn about the epidemiology of a particular microbe to understand disease transmission and prevention, because they already know more than most of the adults do on the epidemiology of zombie diseases–the key is to get them to use that knowledge and broaden their thinking into various “what if” situations that they’re able to talk out and put pieces together.

It can be scary going to talk to kids. Since this was a new program, we didn’t know if anyone would even show up, or how it would go over. Greg brought a watermelon for some weapons demonstrations (household tools only–a screwdriver, hammer and a crowbar, no guns or Samurai swords) which was a big hit. Still, I realize many scientists are more comfortable talking with their peers than with 13-year-olds. Talking about something a bit ridiculous, like an impending zombie apocalypse, can lessen anxiety because it takes quite a lot of effort to be boring with that type of subject matter; it’s entertaining; and kids will listen. And after all, what you don’t know, might eat you.

Summer reading: memoirs in global health and field epidemiology

I know summer is winding down, but there’s still plenty of beach time left and some great books to take along with you. Two giants in the field have recently released memoirs of their respective fights against infectious diseases: William Foege’s House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox and Peter Piot’s No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses.

I’ll begin with William Foege. Foege is a native Iowan, an Epidemic Intelligence Service alum, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His book, as the title suggests, focuses on his role in the fight against smallpox in the 1960s-70s, and primarily his work in Nigeria and India. Realizing that universal vaccination wasn’t going to be possible for a number of reasons, Foege pioneered the implementation of “ring vaccination,” where smallpox cases would be identified and their contacts vaccinated, then those contacts vaccinated, providing “rings” of protection. Hence, the “house on fire” metaphor–one needs to pour water where it will do the most good; on the burning house.

Peter Piot trailed behind Foege by about a decade, starting his scientific investigations in global health after the eradication of smallpox in most countries. Instead, his first field work was with the 1976 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. Piot, a Belgian, was a newly-trained infectious disease doctor, aided in the discovery of the Ebola virus from African samples, and was then sent to assist with the investigation of the outbreak in Belgium’s former colony. The first third of the book details his work in Zaire and sets the stage for the rest of his career, which has focused on sexually transmitted diseases in general and HIV/AIDS in Africa in particular. Piot’s career has included extensive field work, carrying out studies on the ground investigating the epidemiology of HIV, as well as extensive policy work–he was the director of UNAIDS from 1995 until 2008. The final part of the book covers this portion of his career, discussing Piot’s successes and difficulties implementing global AIDS policies.

Both men present harrowing tales of working with deadly viruses in developing countries. Both discuss the difficulty of carrying out ethical research and interventions in places where medicine is more magic and less science. Both mention some perhaps less-than-ideal behavior, either coercing patients to participate (Foege) or hiding their own potential illnesses during the outbreak (Piot), and express frustration at times, detailing not only their successes but also their failures. Both also strongly encourage understanding culture as part of one’s scientific investigations, and to work with local leadership rather than simply swoop in and take over. The books also compliment each other nicely, as Piot describes the first recognition of two novel diseases, while Foege’s work covers the death of smallpox in the natural world.