On Tuesdays and Fridays, an estimated 19,000 people stream down the hill from Congo’s North Kivu province to cross the border into this small town, many of them headed to a sprawling open-air market.
Uganda is determined to keep the deadly hemorrhagic fever from spreading to its side of the border. Before travelers are allowed through, they must step in small tubs of chlorinated water to disinfect their shoes, and their temperatures are taken with no-touch thermometer guns aimed at their temples.
“So far, we have not gotten any case of Ebola,” Ithungu Honorata, a nurse who oversees the screening effort, said Friday. “But we don’t want it to come to Uganda.”
The latest Ebola outbreak, Congo’s 10th, was declared just a week after a smaller one was quelled in another part of the country. It comes four years after the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea killed more than 11,000 people, sickened more than 28,000 and sparked panic about travel in other parts of the world, including the United States.
The current outbreak is still escalating, according to Redfield and workers at nongovernmental organizations that have rushed in to treat victims and interrupt the spread of the disease
“In the next couple of weeks, we’ll have greater clarity” about the scope of the problem, Redfield said.
“The scary thing is that we are above 100 cases already,” said Michelle Gayer, director of emergency health for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that is helping in the region. But she said it will be another week before health authorities can begin to assess fully how bad the outbreak may become.
“Everyone is concerned, rightfully so, that there are still cases coming,” said Karin Huster, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, who is in Beni, a city in the affected area of Congo.
Several factors make this outbreak challenging. Years of conflict between militias and the government have put large numbers of people on the move and weakened the region’s health infrastructure. The instability also makes it difficult to travel to outlying areas where cases have been discovered, such as Oicha, without military protection.
At the Congo-Uganda border crossing, Alphosine Kahindo, 47, was on her way to the market, a 12-hour trip on foot from her home in Kisima, to buy fish and soap and to sell a milky-white alcoholic drink made from fermented corn. She said that her uncle is sick and that her brother died in the current outbreak. She did not attend his funeral, she said, because of the fear of infection.