For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the coronavirus is the least of their worries. Despite the country had almost surpassed an Ebola outbreak in its eastern provinces, health officials have announced the emergence of a new cluster on the opposite side of the country.
The outbreak started in the western port city of Mbandaka, but it’s not clear yet how. The World Health Organization first reported four deaths to the virus followed by UNICEF stating that five people, including a 15-year-old girl, had died between May 18 and Sunday when health officials confirmed they were Ebola-related fatalities.
The new outbreak comes at the same time the Congo is dealing with the coronavirus epidemic, with already 3,200 positive cases and 72 deaths, as well as a large measles outbreak, with 369,500 infections and nearly 6,800 deaths since 2019 when the outbreak began.
“This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement. “Although much of our attention is on the pandemic, WHO is continuing to monitor and respond to many other health emergencies.”
This is the 11th outbreak of Ebola that Congo has seen since it first emerged in 1967 and it’s happening simultaneously with the 10th outbreak in the northeastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri – declared in 2018 but now in its final phase.
The WHO was about to declare the 10th outbreak over when a new case was confirmed on April 10. Then, on May 14, the country started a 42-day countdown to the declaration of the outbreak’s end. Nevertheless, the WHO said new outbreaks are likely to happen as the virus is living in animal reservoirs across the country.
“It’s happening at a challenging time, but WHO has worked over the last two years with health authorities, Africa CDC and other partners to strengthen national capacity to respond to outbreaks,” said in a statement Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
A team from the WHO is already in Mbandaka supporting the response to this new outbreak, as part of the capacity built during the 2018 outbreak. The team supported the collection and testing of samples, sending them to the national laboratory for confirmation.
Understanding the Ebola virus
The Ebola virus is a severe, often fatal, illness that affects humans and other primates. It’s transmitted to people from wild animals such as fruit bats and then spreads in the human population via direct contact with the blood and other bodily fluids of the infected people and with surfaces contaminates with the fluids.
The first Ebola outbreak happened in remote villages in Central Africa, near tropical rainforests. The 2014–2016 outbreak in West Africa was the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976. There were more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined.
Vaccines to protect against Ebola are currently under development and have been used to help control the spread of Ebola outbreaks in African countries. There is no licensed treatment proven to neutralize the virus but a range of blood, immunological and drug therapies are under development.