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A porous border could hinder efforts to stem the spread of the Ebola virus



MPONDWE, Uganda (AP) – Several hiking trails crisscross this lush region where people stroll between Congo and Uganda to visit their families and close friends and visit bustling markets.

The problem is that pedestrians can be unwittingly carried by the deadly Ebola virus and hinder efforts to control the current epidemic in eastern Congo, which has killed more than 1,400 people.

The busy border post is open 12 hours a day from 7 am, but after dark, people walk along the "panyas" or "mouse paths" because the narrow dirt tracks are known in the area. local language, Kiswahili.

The trails show the close relationship between the two countries, where most people have parents on both sides of the border. But as Ebola rages, they are a source of concern for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent further cross-border contamination. East Congo has been fighting the Ebola outbreak since last August and last week the disease spread to Uganda, where two people died from haemorrhagic fever.

"This border is very porous," said James Mwanga, a Ugandan police officer in charge of the Mpondwe border crossing. "You will not know who passed if the person went through unofficial border posts, in most cases. Now there is anxiety, and so on. We increased our vigilance. "

Ebola deaths in Uganda took place after a Congolese-Ugandan family went to Congo to care for a family elder suffering from the disease.

The authorities believe that members of this family, including a 5-year-old boy and his 50-year-old grandmother who died of the Ebola virus, took a return path to Uganda. In doing so, they may have exposed many Ugandans to the viral disease.

The current epidemic in eastern Congo has become the second worst after the 2014-2016 West Africa epidemic, which claimed more than 11 lives. 000 people. Despite the new Ebola vaccines, the current epidemic is difficult to control. Eastern Congo is one of the most turbulent regions in the world, and rebels attacked medical centers while community resistance also harmed the work of fighting the Ebola virus. The virus can spread quickly through close contact with the body fluids of infected people and can be fatal in 90% of cases.

Identifying who may have been exposed is crucial. According to the World Health Organization, at least 112 people who have contracted Ebola have been identified in Uganda.

The epidemic is an "extraordinary event" of great concern, but does not yet deserve to be declared a global emergency, said a panel of experts from the World Health Organization last week.

Declaring an emergency could have "unintended consequences," such as airlines stopping flights or closing governments, Preben Aavitsland, acting chairman of the committee, told the press.

The Congolese Ministry of Health said the decision showed that its efforts to control the epidemic were effective and that some Congolese health workers were also opposed to the emergency declaration.

"Imagine if neighboring countries were closing their borders because of us," said Gerard Kasereka, a health worker who oversees handwashing in the Congolese town of Butembo. "We would suffer because most people in Butembo live off the trade and most of our goods come from Uganda, Kenya and Dubai."

Despite the obvious risks of increased cross-border contamination, Ugandan health officials insist that they are ready to prevent the spread of the disease. They call for vigilance and advise people to avoid petting and even shaking hands. At several border crossing points, travelers should wash their hands with chlorinated water and take their temperature before proceeding.

Uganda has faced several Ebola outbreaks in recent years and managed to control them, although the region of western Uganda where last week's death occurred never been touched. The country's first home in 2000 infected 425 Ugandans and killed more than half in the north. Another epidemic in 2007 killed 37 people in Bundibugyo, an isolated district close to the Congolese border.

"I can not find anyone in my Ugandan family willing to let me stay with them," said Morian Kabugho, who lives in the Congolese village of Kasindipo and goes to Uganda to sell eggs in the bustling market.

She's complaining of health officials in Congo. "I am not happy with my government. Nurses are lazy. When you go to the nearest health center, they will tell you to go far to Beni, "Kabugho said.

She said that if she had already had a fever and was worried about contracting the Ebola virus, she would go to Uganda hoping to get better care there.

Local authorities recognize that it is difficult to control the border but hope that more people will listen to security messages.

"The challenge we have here is the poor adoption of the messages we send to the people. A woman comes from Congo, avoids crossing the border and goes through a panya, "said Moses Mugisa, a city employee who oversees the border area.

According to official figures, no less than 800 Congolese travel daily to Uganda at the Mpondwe border crossing, but the number of people using the hiking trails is not counted. The numbers are increasing every day of the market, when traders come in with everything from vegetables to sacks of grain.

"The numbers are huge," said Primrose Natukunda, a Ugandan Red Cross branch manager who oversees the health team screening. "So, it's not easy. It's constant. Every minute, you must be alert. "

When the border is closed, the trails return at dusk, she said: "At night, that's where people go. There is no one to stop them. "

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The AP reporter, Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro, has contributed from Beni, Congo.

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