Africa is currently in the throes of a major outbreak of the Ebola virus that has ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), killing over 500 people, 100 of whom are children. And the outbreak has only shown signs that it will continue to worsen amid the dire social situation in the region.
According to the DRC’s Health Ministry, there have been over 811 confirmed or probable cases of the disease since last August, making the Ebola outbreak the second-deadliest in history.
The disease, which leads to severe cases of fever, headache, and hemorrhaging, normally kills about half of those infected, yet the latest outbreak has claimed the lives of around 60 percent of those who have contracted it.
Early detection, early action: Adam is helping his community in #Uganda to prepare and know more about #Ebola. In neighbouring DRC, there is an outbreak of the disease. #RedCross teams are helping to detect potential threats early. pic.twitter.com/13y7n3V4bK
— IFRC Intl. Federation #RedCross #RedCrescent (@Federation) February 12, 2019
According to Save the Children, new cases of the virus have doubled since last month and such rates are sure to escalate in the face of instability, violence, fear and widespread ignorance over the virus.
In a statement, Save the Children country director for the DRC Heather Kerr said:
“We are at a crossroads … If we don’t take urgent steps to contain this, the outbreak might last another six months, if not the whole year. The DRC is a country suffering from violence and conflict and an extreme hunger crisis—some 4.6 million children are acutely malnourished. The main concerns for many people are safety and making sure they have enough to eat. But Ebola has to be a priority too.”
Two provinces impacted by the outbreak, North Kivu and Ituri, have been in the grips of internecine conflict since late 2017, causing widespread displacement risking the spread of the virus while also rendering aid to the stricken regions nearly impossible without putting the lives of medical personnel on the line.
A woman in #Équateur #DRCongo holds up the picture of her daughter, who died during the #Ebola outbreak last year. She asked me to share her photo: "don't forget about us now, Ebola might be finished, but we are still suffering". #aftermath #recovery #resilience – w. @NBertrams. pic.twitter.com/KGSbaHxPtq
— Ingrid Gercama (@AnthroVision) February 7, 2019
The situation has grown so dangerous that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were forced to pull experts from the outbreak zone due to security concerns. The CDC move came under heavy criticism, however, given the organization’s expertise and its long history of managing similar outbreaks in the past.
According to Save the Children, Ebola experts and health workers have also faced hostility from locals due to the authorities’ inability to properly educate communities about the virus. According to the group, discussions around the virus are still considered taboo among many Congolese.
“It is paramount to convince communities that Ebola is an urgent and real concern. People have disrupted funerals because they didn’t believe the deceased had succumbed to the virus. Aid workers were threatened because it was believed they spread Ebola. We have to scale up our efforts to reach out to the vocal youth and community leaders to build trust and to help us turn this tide. Treating the people who are sick is essential, but stopping Ebola from spreading further is just as important.”
Experts now fear that the constant displacement of communities due to local conflicts will cause the disease to spread to neighboring Uganda.
The #Ebola vaccination exercise continues in the high-risk districts. The vaccination exercise has been done in 10 districts. Since November 7, 2018, 3587 front-line and health care workers have been vaccinated in; 119 health facilities and 13 border points of entry. #Uganda pic.twitter.com/ZPZkK3YuWL
— WHO Uganda (@WHOUganda) February 8, 2019
Amid the fast-expanding outbreak, some experts are looking with hope to a new experimental vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV, manufactured by Merck and deemed safe and effective by the World Health Organization (WHO). Experts who administered 64,000 doses of the vaccine found that it had an efficacy rate of over 90 percent. Merck has promised to accelerate the rollout of the vaccine to the DRC.
Yet at its root, this latest Ebola outbreak has social causes – and its ramifications could become global in scale if those root causes fail to be addressed.
Such was the sentiment in a letter last week written by health experts in The Lancet, where they demanded that WHO declare the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” Stressing the need for the combined efforts of medical personnel and governments across the world, the experts wrote:
“A storm of detrimental factors complicates this event: armed conflict, political instability, and mass displacement … The outbreak remains far from controlled, risking a long-term epidemic with regional, perhaps global, impacts.
… WHO has shown leadership and operational endurance, working tirelessly to combat the DRC Ebola epidemic. But WHO and partners cannot succeed alone. We live at a political moment when international solutions to collective threats are increasingly hard to achieve. But WHO and the UN system will be called upon with ever-greater frequency in the future to manage complex humanitarian crises. We must plan for a future in which political violence and instability become the new abnormal.”