Why Health Officials Are Afraid the Ebola Outbreak in the Congo Could Get Way Worse

By George Dvorsky on at

A humanitarian group says the escalating Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo could become “the worst ever seen in East Africa.” The stark comments follow reports claiming the deadly virus is spreading quickly in conflict-hit areas.

On 1 August 2018, the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) declared a new outbreak of Ebola in North Kivu, one of the most populous provinces in the country. Over four weeks later, and with the outbreak threatening to escalate even further, the humanitarian group International Rescue Committee (IRC) has sounded the alarm, saying the situation in the DRC, without international assistance, could mirror the events of 2014-2016 in which the Ebola virus killed over 11,000 people in West Africa.

Indeed, it’s one thing for Ebola to appear in highly populated urban areas, but quite another when the dreaded disease spreads through war-torn territories. Such is the situation currently unfolding in the DRC, where millions have been displaced in recent years as multiple conflicts ravage the country. The UN Refugee Agency says “anarchy persists” in many parts of the North Kivu region. The conflict pits the DRC military against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a lingering offshoot of the militants responsible for the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, among other combatants.

A man displays an Ebola information leaflet for residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image: AP)

With 112 confirmed and likely cases of Ebola, and at least 75 confirmed deaths, this latest outbreak is starting to take its toll. Armed militias are currently active in Kivu and other DRC regions, with the government restricting the movement of health workers into these areas. Kivu borders both Uganda and Rwanda, potentially putting those neighbouring countries at risk as well. An experimental Ebola vaccine currently exists, but the military conflict in Kivu will likely make it difficult to reach areas in need.

The recent spread of Ebola to Oicha, a city in North Kivu surrounded by “multiple armed groups”, now poses new logistical challenges, according to the IRC.

“If someone contracts Ebola in one of these areas, there is almost no way of knowing and, therefore, no way of cutting the chain of transmission,” Michelle Gayer, Senior Director of Emergency Health at the IRC, said in a statement. “The news of two confirmed cases in Oicha is extremely distressing, because the area is almost entirely surrounded by armed militants. The IRC has health staff working in the area who have been trained in proper protocols should they receive a suspected case.”

To which she added: “Without a swift, concerted and efficient response, this outbreak has the potential to be the worst ever seen in East Africa—and risks being an encore of history we simply cannot afford. Just like in the 2014 pandemic, community sensitisation is of the utmost importance.

The IRC itself is currently supporting 37 health facilities in North Kivu to help control of the infection, provide protective equipment and supplies, and isolate and refer suspected cases. It’s also working with other teams in the region to educate locals about Ebola.

The West African Ebola outbreak was the longest and largest outbreak of the disease in human history, with a peak of 950 confirmed cases a week. An international effort was required to contain the outbreak, but in a part of Africa relatively free of conflict. The current outbreak in the DRC poses a different challenge altogether. [ABC, IRC]