It might seem that Christmas is coming early for students in Uganda as millions of them go home early for school holidays on Friday. Yet the decision to close schools nationwide two weeks before the end of the term was made to curb the spread of Ebola as the country continues to battle one of its worst outbreaks.
It also runs counter to the government’s official position that everything is under control.
In the past two months, 55 people have died from the virus and there were 22 probable deaths from Ebola before an outbreak was officially declared on Sept. 20.
Some experts have expressed reservations about school closures, arguing that keeping pupils in isolation for another two weeks would be a better way to stop the spread of the deadly disease, given that the incubation period can last from two days to three weeks.
Ebola is a viral infection that spreads through a patient’s bodily fluids.
Many of the children attending boarding schools will travel long distances across the country.
“They will be packed into buses, minibuses and private cars providing the maximum opportunity for people to mingle closely together,” said public health expert Dr Olive Kobusingye, senior research scientist at Makerere University School and Southern University Africa. the BBC.
“It’s the last thing Uganda needs right now.”
But it is not a decision taken lightly, given that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Uganda has imposed the longest closure of schools globally, lasting 22 months.
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 Kampala schools, which led to the deaths of eight students.
The infections in the capital were linked to a man who had traveled there from the western district of Mubende, the epicenter of the epidemic.
The fear is that schools could now act as a reserve, something the authorities want to avoid in urban areas.
Schools had already put in place strict anti-Ebola measures – many already used for Covid – including temperature control, regular hand washing and surface disinfection.
Visits by parents and guardians were therefore prohibited as the last semester of the year drew to a close and final year students prepared for exams.
For Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng, organizing students’ end-of-year travel to and from Mubende and Kassanda, another of the hardest-hit districts, was of paramount importance.
Both of these areas are still locked down, meaning residents cannot go out and entry is restricted unless off the main highway.
The children will be dropped off at designated spots from where they will then 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 their parents can pick them up.
“This is to ensure that parents do not enter the two districts and students leaving boarding schools do not enter the communities” at the epicenter of the outbreak, Dr Aceng told the BBC.
Pupils returning to Mubende and Kassanda must first travel to Kampala, where they will be loaded onto buses and taken to a main meeting point within their home district.
They will be fully informed in advance on how to protect themselves.
Uganda has faced multiple Ebola outbreaks over the past 22 years, but the current one is by far the most widespread, having been reported in nine districts, mostly in the central regions.
Like four previous outbreaks, this one is of the Sudan strain, for which there is no approved vaccine or treatment, unlike the more common Zaire strain responsible for the largest Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The government has said trials for three vaccines will begin in the coming weeks, though details are scarce on how and by whom they will be done.
There was good news from Kagadi and Bunyangabu districts, where they went 42 days without re-infection, double the incubation period.
Kyegegwa district has also been without a new case for a couple of weeks, giving response teams hope that the control measures are working.
But the challenge continues to be people who have been identified as contacts of confirmed cases who then travel without notifying health care workers.
The outbreaks in Jinja and Masaka were triggered by two infected people who traveled separately from Kampala.
Critics believe this is an indication that the health ministry lacks the capacity to manage containment and are concerned about the thoroughness of contact tracing.
“I think the figures that have been released are confirmed figures, but I don’t think they are comprehensive,” ActionAid’s Xavier Ejoyi told the BBC.
In response, the health minister acknowledged he could not say the quarantine or case identification was “100% airtight”, but expressed confidence that surveillance teams could quickly identify any cases that were been lost.
Lt Col Dr Henry Bosa, the country’s Ebola incident commander, agreed, telling the BBC: ‘If we were withholding data, the evidence would come out – we would see people dying en masse.’
However, he admitted that listing contacts in urban settings was complex and speed mattered.
Pupils are expected to return to class for the new school year in January.
The health ministry estimates the epidemic could end in February or March, though Dr Aceng harshly warned that this would only happen if people obeyed preventive measures.
“The end of this epidemic depends a lot on the communities,” he said.