Local authorities in the Gulu region have suspended indefinitely nearly all local church worship and most other public gatherings following an outbreak of Ebola, one of the world's most virulent viruses.

Since the outbreak in Gulu, Uganda, Charles Oneka cannot find his brother, who is an ambulance driver in the region. "I'm very worried. My brother is carrying many sick people," Oneka said putting down the phone after trying six different numbers to reach his brother in Gulu, which is 215 miles from Kampala, Uganda's capital.

"If the virus reaches those refugee camps near Gulu it will be very bad," Oneka told Christianity Today

Like most of the 21 million Ugandans who have seen their share of grief, Oneka too is clucking his tongue and shaking his head, asking why yet another catastrophe has shaken Uganda. Health officials traced the source of the Ebola outbreak to one family in Gulu who were infected by an unknown source in September. But since the news of the Ebola epidemic went out early this week, residents are afraid to touch one another. And those with a nosebleed or diarrhea are feared to have the dreaded disease.

"People were panicking," Gulu policeman Wilson Odur said. And Ugandans nationwide fear the disease will spread to their regions. The mostly rural farming population of Uganda is still confused about how the virus spreads. Ministry of Health, World Health Organization (WHO), and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officials, meanwhile, are educating rural and mostly illiterate subsistence farmers about hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus. Broadcasts on Radio Freedom Gulu even discourage shaking hands.

'"I'm terrified. This disease can kill in just a few days," George Kabwagu, a Jinja resident, said.

The first-ever outbreak in Uganda of Ebola hemorrhagic fever has infected 111 persons and killed 41 in the northern Uganda town of Gulu, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported earlier this week. Health workers in locally-made cloth masks and some in double latex gloves, meanwhile, continue to canvas Gulu district where they are finding ten new cases of Ebola daily among a frightened population.

The devastating Ebola virus is transmitted by direct contact with the bodily fluids such as blood and saliva of infected persons. The most potent virus known today, Ebola hemorrhagic fever kills the majority of victims within two weeks of infection. Victims suffer flu-like symptoms, vomiting and diarrhea, then as organs fail and blood does not clot they bleed out of all the bodily orifices in the final hours before death.

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But at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in Gulu a Church of Uganda bishop sees the hand of God working where others only see a curse. "One Christian called me from Kampala and said our community (Gulu) is cursed," says Onono Onweng, bishop of Gulu district.

"But even where there is hopelessness God always provides a way. He is now helping us through the international community," Bishop Onweng told CT. Onweng believes Gulu residents have also helped themselves by staying home and following the advice of health officials. But Ugandans must not keep quiet, says the bishop. "My message is that we need to cry to God to restore our community," Bishop Onweng said.

Early in the Ebola epidemic the disease spread to those who buried the Ebola victims. One woman was infected when she gave away her clothing to bury an Ebola victim. In place of her clothes she wrapped in a blanket which had covered the Ebola victim and contained bodily fluids from the deceased.

Schools were closed in Gulu after a student vomited and was abandoned on the school playground by fellow students and even teachers. The student's mother came to treat the child, who was later believed to have malaria and not Ebola.

Church services and all public meetings were also shut down indefinitely and communion was also postponed because churches most commonly use either a one cup or dipping method, which church and government leaders feared could spread the virus.

"People would like to pray (in church) but not to sit touching someone," Bishop Onweng said.

Not touching another person in this overcrowded town of refuge is easier said than done. Most of Gulu's residents are refugees from rebel fighting along Uganda's border with Sudan. They stay in Gulu for military protection, but they are now finding there is no safe haven, even among family. Whole families have died of Ebola. One Gulu resident carried his child to be buried then also died of the Ebola virus days later.

The majority of the victims are women because of their cultural role of nursing the sick and bathing the dead. At Lacor Hospital, where the first cases of Ebola were discovered, a mother wore latex gloves and a mask while holding her infected child in her arms. But this week hospital personnel have removed families and have taken the primary care role from the mothers. After three student nurses died of Ebola, health workers are using extreme caution, including gloves, masks and goggles when available.

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Health officials in Gulu have also discouraged attending funerals. At one funeral, those who buried the body of an Ebola victim burned their own clothes after the burial. Before burial Ugandans often wash the dead body while verbally saying "goodbye" or "praying" to the spirit of the deceased to protect the surviving family and give them good crops and health. Women also customarily sit with the body wrapped and lying on the floor in a mud hut for one to three days before burial. Burial is usually near the family home rather than in a cemetery. Health officials, however, are requiring residents to give up these intimate funeral rites during the Ebola epidemic.

"We have broken culture, but this is a good response," Bishop Onweng said.

Soldiers and prisoners have instead been outfitted with protective gloves, goggles, masks, and boots in order to dispose of bodily fluids and corpses in designated burial grounds. Bodies are wrapped in cloth or plastic at the hospital and taken directly for burial.

Uganda Ministry of Health, WHO, and the CDC may have prevented hundreds or even thousands of deaths in Uganda. But the nation is still one of the poorest in the world and general health is also among the worst in the world. Life expectancy is below 50 for both men and women. And ten percent of all children born in Uganda die before the age of five. During the time period of the Ebola epidemic, more Ugandan children have died of illnesses unrelated to Ebola—such as preventable dehydration from diarrhea—than those who have died of Ebola.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today reported earlier this year about the Sudan-supported Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducting Ugandan children to fight in their rebel war.

Christianity Today also reported on the cultic mass murder of 900 in Uganda.

For more links to Uganda news and information, go to ugandamissions.org.

More on the Ebola outbreak is available from Yahoo's Full Coverage area on Uganda.

News coverage of the Ebola outbreak includes:

Ebola infections rise to 111—News24 South Africa (Oct. 20, 2000)

'Ebola can be contained'—News24 South Africa (Oct. 20, 2000)

Uganda, internat'l teams mobilise against Ebola—News24 South Africa (Oct. 20, 2000)

U.S. Experts Help Uganda on Ebola—Associated Press (Oct. 20, 2000)

UN stay despite Ugandan Ebola outbreakBBC (Oct. 20, 2000)

Ebola strain identifiedBBC (Oct. 20, 2000)

Ebola: experts praise Uganda's fast responseThe Independent (Oct. 19, 2000)

Ebola outbreak traced to womanCity Press South Africa (Oct. 19, 2000)