A five-year-old has died of Ebola in Uganda in the first spread of a deadly outbreak in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Health officials said the boy passed away last night after testing positive for the killer virus in Uganda, which has been on high alert for 10 months.
The boy was from the DRC, and had reportedly travelled across the border with his mother and other family members to see his father.
More than 2,000 cases of Ebola have been recorded in the north-eastern part of the DRC since the outbreak began last August.
Official figures show the death toll in the African nation now stands at 1,396, with half of the fatalities having occurred since April.
Confirmation of cross-border contamination is a blow to local officials who have desperately tried to stop the spread of Ebola.
‘The boy who tested positive for Ebola in Kasese yesterday passed on last night in the isolation unit,’ an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
‘The minister for health (Ruth Aceng) will be briefing the country about the death of the boy and arrangements to bury the body.’
The official said the child, who traveled to Uganda from the DRC on Monday, was likely to be buried later today.
The child and his family entered the country through Bwera border post and sought medical care at a hospital in Kagando.
Uganda’s health ministry and the WHO have sent a rapid response team to the western town of Kasese to trace likely cases.
The WHO said that aid workers will vaccinate those who may have come into contact with the boy.
The unidentified child was receiving supportive treatment at Bwera ETU, an Ebola treatment unit.
Two of his family members were being tested for Ebola after developing symptoms, with results expected later today.
Congo’s health ministry in a separate statement said the boy, from Mabalako, arrived on Monday at Congo’s Kasindi border post.
There, a dozen family members appeared to have symptoms and were transferred to an isolation center at the local hospital for observation.
Six family members then broke away while being transferred to an Ebola treatment center in Beni and crossed into Uganda.
Ugandan officials found the family members at the Kagando hospital, where the boy’s Ebola case was confirmed.
Officials from the two countries will meet today about the possibility of sending the family back to Beni in Congo for treatment, the health ministry said.
It is not clear how the family members were able to cross the border, where millions have travelers have been screened for Ebola since the outbreak began.
Ugandan health teams ‘are not panicking,’ Henry Mwebesa, a physician and the national director of health services, told The Associated Press.
He cited the country’s experience battling previous outbreaks of Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers.
‘We have all the contingencies to contain this case,’ Mr Mwebesa said. ‘It is not going to go beyond’ the patient’s family.
The family likely did not pass through official border points, where all travelers are screened for a high temperature and isolated if they show signs of illness.
The child’s mother, who is married to a Ugandan, ‘knows where to pass. She does not have to go through the official border points,’ Mr Mwebesa said.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: ‘News of an Ebola case confirmed in Uganda is tragic but unfortunately not surprising.
‘Uganda is very well prepared, has established surveillance and given the Merck vaccine to health care workers, but we can expect and should plan for more cases in DRC and neighbouring countries.
‘This epidemic is in a truly frightening phase and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. There are now more deaths than any other Ebola outbreak in history, bar the West Africa Epidemic of 2013-16, and there can be no doubt that the situation could escalate towards those terrible levels.’
In April, an expert committee of the WHO decided that DR Congo’s outbreak, while of ‘deep concern’, was not yet a global health emergency.
International spread of a disease is one of the major criteria WHO considers before declaring a situation to be a global health emergency.
Uganda has had multiple outbreaks of Ebola – considered one of the most lethal pathogens in existence – since 2000.
The outbreak in the DRC only appears to be getting worse – week-by-week infection rates are far higher than at any time before March.
Attacks from armed rebels – some believed to be linked to Islamic State – are slowing down the response and risking the lives of locals and aid workers.
Armed militiamen reportedly believe Ebola is a conspiracy against them and have repeatedly attacked health workers battling the epidemic.
There have been more than 120 attacks this year against aid workers, with eighty-five being wounded or killed, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Ebola killed 11,000 people and ravaged West Africa during an epidemic between 2014-15. One case was detected in Spain, Italy and the UK, respectively.
The DRC declared its tenth ever outbreak of Ebola last August in northeastern North Kivu province.
The killer virus, which causes fevers, uncontrollable bleeding and organ failure, quickly spread into the neighboring Ituri region.