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Originally published December 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 6, 2007 at 6:33 PM

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Ugandan health workers hit by Ebola, causing panic

Health workers are among the dead in an Ebola outbreak in Uganda, spreading panic among doctors and nurses needed to help treat victims...

The Associated Press

KAMPALA, Uganda — Health workers are among the dead in an Ebola outbreak in Uganda, spreading panic among doctors and nurses needed to help treat victims of the highly contagious disease, officials said.

Doctors and nurses did not at first know what they were facing, so failed to protect themselves, according to a lawmaker representing the western region at the center of the outbreak. Experts say the Ebola subtype that sparked the outbreak is new and the classic Ebola symptoms were not always present, slowing diagnosis.

"We are facing a crisis in health care here," said Jane Alisemera, the lawmaker representing Bundibugyo, the district 120 miles from Kampala where the outbreak has claimed at least 18 lives. Health workers "are scared and morale is low."

"There is a very big shortage of nursing staff now at the hospital," she said.

According to the Ministry of Health's latest figures, Bundibugyo has 93 suspected cases of Ebola, among them 22 deaths. Four health workers were among the dead in an outbreak that began on Aug. 20, but the disease was not confirmed as Ebola until Nov. 29.

"The staff at the hospital didn't know they were dealing with a highly contagious outbreak so they took inadequate precautions," Alisemera said. The hospital did not have protective clothing at the time of the outbreak, she said, though aid agencies have since donated supplies.

Two teams, including infection control doctors from the World Health Organization and the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently arrived in Uganda to help local officials contain the outbreak. In previous Ebola outbreaks, the virus has often spread in health care centers where doctors and nurses are not properly protected.

WHO and CDC experts recommend that when caring for Ebola patients, doctors and nurses wear gowns, gloves, goggles, masks and boots.

Local media reported that nursing staff in the isolation unit at Bundibugyo hospital were working without gloves and masks, and that the door of the ward was not locked.

Some health workers have threatened to strike unless they are paid extra for the risk they are taking, Alisemera said.

"The staff are moving in a state of fear," said Samuel Kazinga, a local government official and head of the district Ebola task force. "They have lost many of their colleagues and have put themselves at great risk in the line of duty. It is only fair that they should get some extra money, unfortunately we did not have the funds available immediately."

He said that negotiations with hospital staff had resolved their complaints and that medical personnel were attending patients.

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Doctors would be paid a daily risk allowance of $23, while nurses and auxiliary staff would get $17 and $12 respectively, he said.

Since the threat of the strike, the UNICEF has offered to contribute money toward the extra payments.

"Health workers are taking a great risk in supporting their communities and they need to be supported in that," said UNICEF's country representative Keith McKenzie.

Ebola typically kills most of those it strikes through massive blood loss, and has no cure or treatment. It is spread through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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