CDC Experts Hunt For Origin Of Ebola Outbreak

By Julius Mokaya | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Nairobi, ( - As the death toll in northern Uganda's deadly Ebola outbreak approached 60 Monday, experts from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed it has identified the "Sudan strain" of the virus.

Another 160 patients showing Ebola-like symptoms were being treated in hospitals in the Gulu area, the CDC officials said.

The CDC's team leader in Uganda, Perre Rollin, said the Sudan strain was one of three known strains of the virus. It was last detected in southern Sudan in 1979.

The information has reinforced speculation in Uganda that the virus may have been inadvertently brought into the area by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan militia, which has bases across the border in southern Sudan.

The CDC team, together with other experts from Uganda, the World Health Organization and Doctors without Borders, have established a clinical center aimed at containing the killer disease.

WHO experts began treating patients as virologists from the Atlanta-based CDC set up a laboratory. Logisticians from Doctors without Borders established supply lines and Ugandan volunteers went on a house-to-house campaign checking for new patients and educating the locals about the dangers of the disease and how to avoid it.

The head of the WHO team, Dr. Guenael Rodier - a veteran of past Ebola outbreaks - expressed confidence that area hospitals were now safe and that most residents were now aware of the disease.

The first person to develop the disease in this latest eruption was admitted to the hospital a month ago. Confirmation that it was Ebola came only on October 14.

Ugandan officials and foreign experts said Monday they were confident there would not be a mass outbreak of the disease in the area.

The CDC experts on Monday started testing patients to enable them isolate those who were carrying the disease.

Rollin said the laboratory had been set up and tests were being run. Once it was fully operational it would be able to handle dozens of blood samples simultaneously. Friends and relatives of Ebola victims would then be quickly tracked down and tested themselves.

There is no known cure for the hemorrhagic fever, which is spread by human contact and brings massive internal bleeding.

Before the present outbreak, Ebola had claimed 793 lives in nearly 1,100
documented cases since it was first discovered in what was then Zaire in

Rollin said that once the spread of the epidemic has been checked, the team would start work immediately to search for the source, or reservoir.

"We still have no known reservoir for the virus. So we really want to find that," he added.

If they could track down the index case - "the first person or people who contracted the disease in this outbreak" - it would help them search for the natural habitat of the virus.

"The only way is to try and find the index case, maybe there is one, maybe there are several, we don't know."

An Ebola epidemic in the west African country of Gabon in 1996 was traced back to one dead chimpanzee found by hunters in the forest. All 19 people who handled the chimpanzee died.

But primates are not themselves the reservoir of Ebola, as they succumb too quickly to the disease, Rollin said. The chimpanzee contracted the disease from another source in the wild.

The virus causing another hemorrhagic fever, Lassa, has been traced to a rodent. This helped health officials stem the spread of the disease.

"We found that the reservoir is a rodent so then you can have some public health measures to educate people - not to go near rodents, to let them in the house or leave food on the table," Rollin said.

He said if the Ebola index case was discovered, then small animals in the surrounding area, such as rats and bats, would be captured to be tested.

Infection rate declining

Meanwhile officials expect the rate of infection to significantly diminish as a result of an intensive campaign to warn local people about the disease.

A tiny local station has played a key role in the campaign's success. Radio Freedom has been broadcasting Ebola awareness messages every 15 minutes during daylight hours.

"Right from day one of the outbreak, we've put Ebola as a priority. We do everything we can to get the message across," said Lacambel Wodogena, the station's director.

Listeners who are nursing sick relatives are told to wash their hands with soap and not to share plates and cups.

They are warned to avoid contact with body fluids, to wash the victims' bedding and to bury the dead quickly, refraining from traditional lengthy communal burial ceremonies.

With a potential audience of about 500,000, Radio Freedom has played a vital role in informing the population of the area about the dangers of Ebola. It attracts queues of people to its tiny office in Gulu, bringing written questions that are answered daily on air by health officials.

The station was established in 1996 to advise people on security in the Gulu area, where the notoriously brutal LRA has carried out atrocities.

It broadcasts in English and two local languages, Lwo and Kiswahili.