Witchcraft, politics rear ugly head in Ebola fight

The Mubende Ebola burial team load a casket containing a body of an Ebola victim onto a pick-up truck last month.  PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Some of the beliefs have continued to affect the response strategies such as contact tracing as some suspected and even confirmed cases escaped from isolation and treatment centres.

The National Ebola Taskforce has said the contagious disease could have emerged around August but the detection was delayed because infected persons believed it was witchcraft and so sought care from traditional healers.

The outbreak was announced on September 19, following laboratory tests at Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI). This announcement came weeks after some people, who had died of Ebola-like symptoms, had already been buried. The Health ministry had earlier estimated that the outbreak happened around the start of September.

Even after the outbreak was announced, a section of the people still claim the disease doesn’t exist or was introduced to keep people poor by sabotaging activities at the gold mine in Mubende District. The Health ministry has described this claim as unfounded.

In Kassanda, one of the affected districts, a man, who later tested positive for Ebola, had reportedly claimed that the death of his baby (suspected Ebola case) was due to witchcraft.

“The couple travelled from Mubende District after the death of their child. They claimed that the death was as a result of witchcraft,” Ms Phoebe Namulindwa, the Kassanda Resident District Commissioner (RDC) and chairperson of the district Ebola taskforce, revealed, adding, “They had relocated to Kassanda for prayers at one of the churches. The man is now admitted at the isolation centre after testing Ebola positive.”

Mubende is the Ebola ‘Ground Zero’, with the majority of cases and deaths coming from the area. Since the outbreak of the disease, there have been seven confirmed deaths and 35 cases in the country, according to the Health ministry.

Age-old beliefs

Many Ugandans use herbal medicine because of traditional beliefs, cultural attachment and difficulties in accessing hospitals, according to health experts.

Some of the beliefs have continued to affect the response strategies such as contact tracing as some suspected and even confirmed cases escaped from isolation and treatment centres. 

One of the positive cases, who disappeared, is yet to be found, according to the Health ministry.

Information our reporters got from the community and the taskforce also indicates that in Kiruuma Sub-county in Mubende District—where a family lost five members before the outbreak was announced—residents claimed that the aforesaid family had been bewitched by unknown individuals.

Madudu Sub-county in Mubende is the most affected area. Mr Henry Sunday Kosea, the head teacher of Madudu Church of Uganda Primary school, told Sunday Monitor that his village linked a series of cases to witchcraft.

“There was one man (a father) working in Kampala, who travelled home to nurse his sick child. When the child died in mid-September, the father too got sick and later died in less than four days,” he narrated.

He added: “At the burial, it was rumoured that the two had died of witchcraft.”

A nurse at St Florence Medical Centre, who handled the two people suspected to have died of Ebola, however, also died after one week.

“But because we lacked expertise in relating the strange deaths with any form of possible ailment that was claiming lives, the witchcraft allegations took centre stage,” he said.

“Earlier, the mother of the nurse who died at St Florence Medical Centre also lost another child within the same period. This occurred in a spell of about three weeks to the announcement of the Ebola outbreak on September 19,” he revealed.

The strange and unexplained deaths occurred at Kijjaguzo, Ngabano, Kisamula and Kasambya villages in Madudu Sub-county. 

Several cases of unexplained deaths occurred in these areas. Since the residents had already linked the deaths to possible witchcraft, the unfortunate families were left guessing the possible ill-hearted people behind the deaths, he explained.

Stuck in old ways?

But Mr Solomon Ssebakijje, a resident of Ngabano Village in Madudu Sub-county, is quick to point out that the confirmation of the Ebola disease should not rule-out the fact that witchcraft practices are common in his area. 

He added that it accounts for several of the misunderstandings registered at the different local administrative levels respectively.

When the National Ebola Taskforce convened at Mubende District Council Hall on September 24, the leaders revealed the possibility that the likely victims of the Ebola Sudan strain in Mubende District must have died as early as August and not September 19—the date when the outbreak was declared.

“We so far think the earliest case could have happened in August and not the September 19 date when a case was confirmed after the tests turned out to be positive,” Dr Henry Kyobe, the Ebola incident commander, said during the meeting chaired by the Health minister, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng.

VHTs on the spot

Dr Aceng questioned the vigilance of the Village Health Teams (VHTs) at the affected areas that failed to report the strange ailment. 

The government doesn’t pay VHTs salaries, according to the Health ministry.

“The VHTs are supposed to be vigilant by responding and reporting all the unexplained health complications in their respective areas. We have now realised the need to reorient the VHTs through training,” Dr Aceng said.

Dr Aceng also rubbished claims that the outbreak of Ebola was a plan to destabilise the area because of the gold in Mubende.

Ms Rosemary Byabasaija, the Mubende RDC, said cases linked to witchcraft allegations are common across the different cultural settings in Uganda. She, however, advised the residents in Mubende to cooperate with the health surveillance teams that are on ground to investigate, trace contact persons and bring to an end the Ebola Sudan strain.

Kyegegwa case

In Kyegegwa District, the case of an eight-year old girl, a suspected Ebola case buried on September 12, was linked by locals to her journey from Madudu Sub-county in Mubende, where she was receiving treatment from a local herbalist.

She died two days after arrival from Madudu where her grandmother had reportedly sought traditional healing for a disease that was linked to witchcraft practices.

She presented with Ebola-like symptoms, but unfortunately, died before the Ebola outbreak was declared. The secretary for health at Kabarungi Village in Kagongoro Town Council, Mr Bonaventure Turyahikayo, revealed that the girl was taken to a female herbalist—Fabis Naturinda—who also died of Ebola later on September 25.