It may seem like Christmas is coming early for Ugandan students as millions of them head home early for the school holidays on Friday. But the decision to close schools across the country two weeks before the end of term has been taken to curb the spread of Ebola, as the country continues to battle one of its worst outbreaks.
It is also at odds with the government’s official position that everything is under control.
In the past two months 55 people have died from the virus – and 22 deaths were likely from Ebola before the outbreak was officially declared on 20 September.
Some experts have expressed concern about the school shutdown, arguing that it would be better to keep the students in confinement for another two weeks to stop the spread of the deadly disease, since the incubation period could last from two days to three weeks.
Ebola is a viral infection that spreads through a patient’s bodily fluids.
Many of the children who attend boarding schools will be traveling long distances across the country.
“They will be packed in buses, minibuses and private cars which will give maximum opportunity for people to be in very close contact,” said public health expert Dr Olive Kobusingye, senior research fellow at Makerere University School and the University of South Africa. the BBC.
“It’s the last thing Uganda needs now.”
But it’s not a decision taken lightly – considering Uganda imposed the world’s longest school closure, lasting 22 months, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Parental visits are prohibited
Education Minister Janet Museveni, who is also the wife of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, made the announcement earlier this month following 23 cases in five schools in Kampala – which resulted in the death of eight students.
The infections in the capital were linked to a man who had traveled there from the western Mubende district, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The fear is that schools could now act as a reservoir – something the authorities want to avoid in urban areas.
Schools had already implemented strict anti-Ebola measures – many already used for Covid – including temperature screening, regular hand washing and surface disinfection.
Visits from parents and guardians were then prohibited because the final term of the year ended and final year students prepared for the exams.
For Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng, organizing end-of-term travel for students to and from Mubende and Kassanda, another of the worst affected areas, was extremely important.
Both of these areas remain locked, meaning residents cannot leave, and entry is restricted unless they pass through on the main road.
Children will be dropped off at designated points from where they will board buses provided by the government and international organizations supporting the Ebola response.
These buses will take them to assigned stops in their home areas where parents can pick them up.
“This is to ensure that the parents do not go into the two areas and the learners who come out of the residential schools do not go into communities” at the heart of the outbreak, Dr Aceng told the BBC.
Students returning to Mubende and Kassanda must first go to Kampala, where they will be bussed and taken to a main meeting point in their home district.
They will be given full information beforehand on how to protect themselves.
Uganda has dealt with multiple Ebola outbreaks over the past 22 years, but the current one is by far the most widespread, having been reported in nine areas, mainly in the central regions.
Like four previous epidemics, this one involves the Sudanese strain, for which there is no approved vaccine or treatment, unlike the more common Zaire strain responsible for West Africa’s largest Ebola outbreak on record.
The government has said trials of three vaccines will begin in the coming weeks, although details are scarce on how and by whom.
There is good news from Kagadi and Bunyangabu districts, where 42 days have passed without a new infection – double the incubation period.
Kyegegwa district has also gone a few weeks without a new case, giving response teams hope that the control measures are working.
But the challenge is always people who have been identified as contacts of confirmed cases and then travel without notifying health workers.
The outbreaks in Jinja and Masaka were triggered by two infected people who traveled separately out of Kampala.
Critics see this as a sign that the health ministry does not have the capacity to deal with containment – and are concerned about the thoroughness of contact tracing.
“I think the data put out there is confirmed data, but I don’t believe it’s exhaustive,” ActionAid’s Xavier Ejoyi told the BBC.
In response, the health minister admitted that she could not say that their quarantine or identification of cases was “100% secure”, but expressed confidence that surveillance teams could quickly identify any missed cases.
Lt Col Dr. Henry Bosa, the country’s commander of the Ebola incident, agreed by telling the BBC: “If we were hiding any data, the evidence would be out – we want to see people dying en masse. “
He admitted, however, that listing contacts in urban settings was complex and speed was important.
The students are due to go back to class for the new school year in January.
The health ministry estimates that the outbreak could end in February or March – although Dr Aceng had bluntly warned that this would only be the case if people adhered to preventive measures.
“The end of this epidemic depends a lot on the communities,” she said.