Ebola Update: DR Congo Confirms New Outbreak

Aug 26, 2014 | Tobi Skotnes, Sumiko Mekaru, Emily Cohn | Outbreak News

The fight against the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has become an increasingly uphill battle as foreign aid workers are pulled out, and a separate strain is found in newly discovered Ebola cases in DR Congo.

 

As the Ebola death toll rises, some American and EU humanitarian workers have been pulled out of their work in Ebola-stricken countries. As Liberia fights to contain the Ebola outbreak, it is also struggling to quickly repair and overcome an already frail healthcare infrastructure.  As announced by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo on August 23rd, a separate strain (from that of the outbreak in Western Africa) has claimed two lives in the newest outbreak.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to confirm the existence of the new outbreak, and its distinction from that in West Africa. DR Congo faces some of the same challenges as the countries in West Africa, a history of significant violence and limited government infrastructure, but the country’s past experience in dealing with Ebola outbreaks should provide it a significant advantage.

 

The health and humanitarian workers that are leaving Liberia are leaving behind onsite staff without proper training, tools or infrastructure to make an impact in slowing the epidemic.  Furthermore, many of the doctors that are staying in West Africa are becoming infected and dying from the disease at an ‘unprecedented’ rate, says WHO. While healthcare workers are at increased risk of contracting the disease, they are also of the most critical importance to containing the outbreak.

 

Even before the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the country suffered from a significant deficit of doctors and trained medical personnel.  In 2012, Liberia only had 200 doctors for a population of over 3.5 million.  The government was in the process of rebuilding infrastructure after a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003.  The post conflict country has been slow to recover and this outbreak serves as a stark reminder for the lack of infrastructure in the country.

 

The situation in Liberia reflects how vulnerable areas of conflict and post conflict zones truly are to disease outbreaks.  Humanitarian aid groups that send in manpower and supplies to help rebuild the country become the pillars holding up any infrastructure, especially in terms of health.  When they pull out it leaves the country more vulnerable.

 

DR Congo has a similar lack of infrastructure, as a result of continuous violence and conflict, and has reported a new Ebola outbreak with two confirmed deaths. The cases of Ebola found in DR Congo are suspected to be a different strain from the Ebola epidemic currently plaguing Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.  Similarly to Liberia, DR Congo is likely to require the aid of many humanitarian groups to contain this new Ebola outbreak.  There are few native doctors in the country, and limited health infrastructure.  DR Congo, like Liberia, cannot afford humanitarian workers to pull out.  The faster the outbreak can be contained the better.

 

However, situational distinctions must be made between the current Ebola outbreak in Western African countries and the newest cases in DR Congo. The countries affected by Ebola in Western Africa have significantly higher population density than the area of the outbreak in DR Congo. This population density has increased the length of strings of transmission between family members and in the general public. Prior outbreaks in DR Congo have historically ‘burned’ out before widespread transmission can take place, in large part due to affected villages’ isolation.

 

One of the first documented outbreaks of Ebola occurred in DR Congo in 1976. Nine outbreaks of Ebola have occurred in the country since, the most recent taking place in 2012. In this respect, DR Congo may be the most qualified country to respond to Ebola outbreaks, despite its history of civil unrest and socio-political problems.

 

The WHO provides official reports on the current state and progression of the Ebola outbreak. The public eagerly awaits more information on the new outbreak in DR Congo.

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