National / Science & Health

Congo girl dies of Ebola in Uganda as doctors collect Japanese medical prize

by Rodney Muhumuza and Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro

AP, Kyodo

On the same day doctors from Congo and Uganda were awarded medical prizes in Japan, a 9-year-old Congolese girl who tested positive for Ebola in Uganda was confirmed to have died, showing the challenges the medical community faces in containing the outbreak.

The young girl’s body will be repatriated with her mother back to Congo for a funeral, according to Dr. Eddy Kasenda, Ebola representative in the Congolese border town of Kasindi.

“We are finalizing the administrative formalities so that the body is repatriated and buried here in Congo, her native country,” said Kasenda. “We are collaborating with the health services of neighboring Uganda and we will strengthen the sanitary measures here in Kasindi.”

According to the World Health Organization, the outbreak in Congo is already nearing 3,000 cases.

A Ugandan official at the hospital where the girl had been in isolation confirmed her death overnight. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. The girl, who was traveling with her mother, was identified at a border screening Wednesday as a possible Ebola patient and isolated.

Although cases of cross-border contamination have been rare, this case highlights the risk of Ebola spreading across the border into neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. Borders in the region are often porous, and many people traveling at night use bush paths to cross over.

Because the 9-year-old Ebola victim passed through an official entry point, Ugandan health authorities believe she had no contact with any Ugandan.

Ebola has killed nearly 2,000 people in eastern Congo alone since August 2018. The disease is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. WHO said Friday that cases have reached 3,000 in Congo, with 1,893 confirmed deaths and some 900 survivors. An average of 80 people per week are sickened by the virus, which has infected most people in Congo’s North Kivu province.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, doctors from Congo and Uganda received a medical prize from the Japanese government on Friday for their outstanding achievements in the fields of medical research and medical services in Africa.

The third Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize went to Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, a 77-year-old Congolese who contributed to the discovery of the Ebola virus, and 75-year-old Francis Gervase Omaswa from Uganda who dedicated himself to nurturing health care workers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented each of the two winners with a certificate for ¥100 million ($940,000) in prize money during the award ceremony in Tokyo, which was attended by African leaders, Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and others.

The Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize is named after a Japanese biologist who made his name in bacteriology before dying of yellow fever in Ghana in 1928 while researching the disease.

It is given to individuals and organizations that have made contributions to the advancement of medical research and services in Africa, on the sidelines of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which ended earlier in the day in Yokohama.

Muyembe-Tamfum, currently general director of the National Institute of Biomedical Research in Kinshasa, received the prize for the medical research category, while Omaswa, executive director of the African Center for Global Health and Social Transformation in Kampala, received the award for the medical services category.

The Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo hasn’t shown signs of slowing down despite new treatments and vaccines given to more than 200,000 people in the region and the use of two therapeutic treatments being used as part of a clinical trial.

Insecurity has been one factor in a region where rebel groups have fought for control of mineral-rich lands for decades. Ebola also has spread because of mistrust by communities who have also staged attacks against health workers. Many people in eastern Congo don’t trust doctors and other medics.

In June, a family of Congolese with some sick family members crossed into Uganda via a bush path.

Two of them later died of Ebola, and the others were transferred back to Congo.

Uganda has had multiple outbreaks of Ebola and hemorrhagic fevers since 2000.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will travel this weekend to Congo with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and senior officials, including Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

On Friday he called on partners to increase their presence in the field.

“Our commitment to the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that we will work alongside them to stop the Ebola outbreak,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Our commitment also means strengthening the health systems to give them all the other things they need. Building strong systems is what will protect people, communities and the world.”