and Missionaries in Uganda
By Dr. J. D. Bonner, MD
Every day I am being asked about the safety of travelling to Uganda since there is an Ebola Outbreak in Africa. I have even been asked if it is safe to interact with missionaries traveling to the U.S. from Uganda and other African countries. While I am not an epidemiologist, I am a medical doctor who pays attention to health issues in East Africa. Confusion and fear are abundant these days about this issue. Hopefully a few observations will help us as believers gain better perspective and know how to respond appropriately to these concerns.
First, Africa is a huge continent. Of the 47 countries in continental Africa, the current Ebola outbreak involves only three of the smaller nations - Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. These three countries on the Western Coast of African make up a approximately 1% of the population of Africa and 1.4% of the land area. The nearest border of Uganda to the nearest border of any of these 3 countries is 3045 miles. By comparison the distance from New York City to Las Angeles is 2448 miles. We already have Ebola infected patients in the United States, but the nearest case is a long distance from Uganda. Second, there is little travel or commerce occurring between Uganda and the area of the Ebola outbreak. There are no direct commercial flights between Uganda and any of these countries. Currently you would have to travel through Morroco or a handful of European countries to get from Uganda to the area of the outbreak. So there is very little reason to expect to see the current Ebola outbreak reach Uganda.
However, Uganda has experienced multiple Ebola outbreaks in the past and there will likely be new outbreaks there in the future. The good news is that Uganda is better prepared for and more experienced at managing Ebola than most other countries of the world. Because of the previous outbreaks, Uganda is now home to the Uganda Viral Research Institute in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control out of which much of the knowledge of the disease and its management has occurred. Local healthcare workers have proven very adept at recognizing the disease and the government has become very effective at limiting the cases. Prior to the current outbreak, Uganda had the most deadly outbreak of Ebola that infected 425 people and caused 224 deaths between October 2000 and February 2001. Since then each outbreak has lessened in severity because of improved management. The next outbreak occurred over a 3 month period from November 2007-January 2008 and involved 149 infections and 37 deaths. There were no more outbreaks until July 2012 when 24 were infected and 17 died. The last outbreak in Uganda was limited to 7 infections and 4 deaths in December 2012. One could actually say that Uganda has shown the world that the disease can be effectively contained with the recent outbreaks involving very few people and lasting a very short time.
So in light of these facts, how should we view Ebola and its risks in Uganda and how should we respond? We need to understand that the current Ebola outbreak poses no more risk to Uganda than it does to the United States – probably less because of travel patterns. Consequently there is no reason to fear having contact with missionaries and others returning to the U.S. from most African countries including Uganda and there is no increased risk of contracting Ebola on a mission trip to Uganda than there ever has been. It is probably less now than in the last 15 years. While there is some risk of encountering people with infectious disease while traveling to Uganda, it doesn’t appear to be any more than the risk one would assume while taking a vacation to Europe. Ironically, Ugandans are now asking how we are dealing with Ebola in our country and are praying for us.
As followers of Christ, while the world’s attention is focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we need to be salt and light to those around us. We can go beyond just talking with others about the outbreak, and lead them in prayer for leaders of nations including our own that they would make the best decisions to protect their citizens. We should pray that this terrible disease outbreak will cause people to consider their eternal destiny and seek salvation through Christ and be ready to give an account for the hope we have in Him. We ought to pray that God will put an end to the rapidly growing tragedy in West Africa and that He would spare the United States and other countries. The world should see in us compassion instead of fear and reason instead of hysteria. We should remember that our apprehension about what might be here in the future, is a reality for those in the affected countries. We should remember that while Ebola is now a terrifying problem in West Africa, that across the continent on average a child dies from malaria every minute.
When we consider foreign missions we have to understand that we do not live in a world that can be free from danger even at home, and travel to different parts of the world will always have some degree of risk. Ultimately God desires that we come to a place where we value glorifying God through obedience to His great commission as more important to us than our own lives, and experience the love He has for us and others in a way that we are moved to be willing to give our lives for others as He did for us. This does not mean that we run recklessly into danger, though God may call some to face it head on. We should use God given wisdom have a realistic understanding of danger and to avoid it when possible, but not allow the enemy to scare us from taking the gospel to other nations.