KAMPALA, Uganda—Uganda declared an outbreak of a relatively rare strain of the Ebola virus on Tuesday, raising concerns of a wider spread because existing vaccines are unlikely to provide quick protection against this version of the virus.
A 24-year-old man who died Monday in central Uganda was found to have been infected with the Sudan strain of Ebola, said Diana Atwine, permanent secretary at Uganda’s Health Ministry.
It is the first time in more than a decade that the Sudan strain has been detected in Uganda, which has experienced six previous outbreaks of Ebola, including three of the Sudan strain.
Eight other patients who are suspected of having Ebola are currently being treated in health facilities in Mubende, a forested farming district about 90 miles west of the capital Kampala, Dr. Atwine said. Health authorities are also investigating the deaths of six other people, including three children, in the village of the 24-year-old man dating back to early September.
Most known outbreaks of Ebola, including the 2014-16 epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa, were caused by a different version of the virus, known as the Zaire strain.
The development of two vaccines against Ebola Zaire transformed the world’s response against Ebola and in recent years helped contain multiple outbreaks, including in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea. The vaccines are given to healthcare workers and other people in proximity with patients, a process known as ring vaccination.
But the World Health Organization said Tuesday that strategy won’t work against the Sudan strain. The more widely used shot, Merck & Co.’s Ervebo vaccine, only provides protection against the Zaire strain and won’t work against the Sudan strain, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
The other Ebola vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, is a two-shot regime, with the first shot targeting the Zaire strain and the second shot, which is administered eight weeks later, designed to target multiple versions of the virus, including the Sudan strain.
“Even if the vaccine was tested and proved to be effective against Sudan ebolavirus, it would only provide protection some days after the second dose is administered,” the WHO spokeswoman said in a statement. “This means the vaccine would not be appropriate for outbreak response to stop the chain of transmission.”
The spokeswoman also said that in contrast to the Zaire strain, for which there are now two approved antibody treatments, there are no proven specific treatments against the Sudan strain. “But supportive care can vastly improve the chances of survival, so we encourage anyone who thinks they might have contracted the virus to come to a health facility for testing and care,” she said.
Responders from Uganda’s Health Ministry were dispatched Tuesday to Mubende, and the WHO sent medical supplies to support the treatment of patients.
The Health Ministry said the 24-year-old man who died was initially treated for other illnesses, including diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia, and was admitted to three different clinics before he died at the regional referral hospital in Mubende. It isn’t yet known how he became infected.
Scientists believe that Ebola was first passed on to humans by animals, such as primates or bats, and past outbreaks were usually considered new introductions of the virus from animals. In recent years, however, there have been multiple outbreaks that appear to have been caused by Ebola survivors inadvertently passing on the virus, likely through sexual intercourse, months or even years after clearing the initial infection.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients or contaminated materials through broken skin, the eyes, nose or mouth.
In the largest known Ebola outbreak in Uganda, the Ebola Sudan strain killed 224 of 425 people infected in 2000 and 2001. In 2019, Uganda quickly contained an outbreak of Ebola Zaire imported from neighboring Congo, where more than 2,000 patients died of the virus between 2018 and 2020.
“Uganda is no stranger to effective Ebola control,” said Dr.
the WHO’s Africa director, on Tuesday. “Thanks to its expertise, action has been taken to quickly…detect the virus and we can bank on this knowledge to halt the spread of infections.”
Write to Nicholas Bariyo at email@example.com
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