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[KAMPALA] A lack of technical capacity in Uganda is thwarting efforts to protect local communities and their livestock from an outbreak of anthrax that is reported to have claimed at least 12 lives, say local scientists.

The outbreak began in Queen Elizabeth National Park in July, but was initially identified by veterinarians from Makerere University, Kampala, as another disease called rinderpest.

Nicholas Kauta, commissioner for livestock health and entomology in Uganda's Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, blames the delay in positively identifying anthrax on the lack of modern laboratory facilities in Uganda.

Samples collected by Ugandan pathologists and veterinary investigators were flown to Germany for identification.

"When we suspected anthrax, we sent samples to the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin and asked them to do genetic tests that confirmed our suspicions," Kauta told SciDev.Net.

Kauta, who also chairs the national park's Anthrax Control Taskforce, says poor disaster preparedness and a lack of scientific and technological capacity in relevant government departments are now hindering efforts to curb the bacterium's spread into neighbouring communities and their 200,000 cattle.

"So far, there are no reports of domestic animals falling sick," says Charles Katureebe, director of medical services for Bushenyi district, one of those affected. "But all warm blooded animals close to the park are vulnerable to the disease if no deliberate effort is made to vaccinate them."

According to Kauta, the Ugandan government has ordered 80,000 doses of anti-anthrax vaccine.

"So far we've received 35,000 doses and the remaining 45,000 doses are expected soon," says Kauta.

He adds, however, that government efforts to curb the threats do not match the ability of anthrax to rapidly infect mammals, including human beings.

Anthrax is caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. When in humans and animals, it rapidly multiplies and kills its host. Outside of the body, anthrax develops spores that can persist in the environment for decades.

"A place infected with anthrax remains most dangerous, especially when it is in spore form," says Kautu.

Since July, more than 200 hippopotamuses and an unknown number of buffaloes in the park have died from the infection. Tourist activities have been banned in the popular Kazinga channel for fear that people could be exposed to the disease from the dead hippopotamuses lying along the shore.

Authorities have now begun the task of disposing of dead wildlife and warning communities of the anthrax threat. By end of October, 69 hippopotamus carcasses had been buried in three metre deep graves while buffalo and warthog carcasses were burnt to ashes with diesel and firewood, to ensure the anthrax bacterium was completely destroyed.

The need for public information and removal of animal carcasses have been heightened by concerns that recent human deaths have resulted from villagers eating infected hippopotamus meat, a local delicacy reputed to boost women's fertility.

Katureebe told SciDev.Net on 2 November that the latest two deaths were of villagers from fishing villages near the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Uganda's New Vision newspaper group's local language papers Orumuri and Bukedde had earlier reported that ten people had died from anthrax, in the region, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We have stepped up mass sensitisation of the community against eating any dead or sick animals through radio and other gatherings," says Katureebe.

Kauta told SciDev.Net that a scientist from the Robert Koch Institute arrived in Kampala at the weekend to help establish a laboratory Queen Elisabeth National Park to continuously test soil, water and carcass samples there.