US Experts Are Being Kept Away From the Front Lines of the Latest Ebola Outbreak

By Ed Cara on at

The latest outbreak of Ebola virus disease to hit the Democratic Republic of Congo is only getting worse. But the US government has pulled its experts from the affected areas of the African country in recent weeks, citing safety concerns.

Over the weekend, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported its newest figures on the current outbreak, located in the North Kivu province along the eastern region of the DRC. It’s the 10th known Ebola outbreak to hit the country and the second recorded this year.

Since 1 August, there have been at least 211 confirmed and probable cases of the often fatal viral disease, with 135 deaths. Officials had been optimistic that the outbreak was on the decline, after a fewer cases were reported in September. But the first half of October has seen a rapid influx of new infections, now confirmed to be a second wave. The WHO expects the outbreak will last at least three or four more months.

Despite the worsening state of the epidemic, however, health officials from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are being kept away from the front lines, STAT reported Sunday. The US State Department’s command to relocate came down after an attack on UN peacekeepers in late August, according to STAT.

“This outbreak is occurring in a highly insecure environment, which complicates public health response activities,” an unnamed State Department official told STAT.

The region is frequently beset by armed conflict between rebel fighters and the DRC government. And the violence has certainly hurt efforts to track and contain the outbreak. Last month, the WHO temporarily suspended activity in the area for the same reason. But public health experts are worried that the unilateral withdrawal by the CDC will only worsen things.

“CDC has responded to nearly two dozen filovirus outbreaks in its history and has people who’ve been working on these issues for 30 years. It doesn’t make sense to have those people hundreds or thousands of miles away from where the disease is actually spreading,” Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told STAT.

Ebola is transmitted by close contact with bodily fluids, such as blood and semen. And historically, its spread has been aided by community practices such as kissing the bodies of the deceased. But efforts to prevent transmission and isolate victims by Ebola response workers are frequently met with distrust by local residents, and occasionally violence.

The new wave of cases has originated from the town of Beni, more than 40 miles away from the original epicentre of Mangina and bordering the country of Uganda. And in part because of the violence enveloping the country, the WHO has warned that the risk of the outbreak spreading beyond the DRC to Uganda and another nearby country, Rwanda, is “very high.”

While public health workers continue to face an uphill battle against the virus, there are some positives. Unlike in 2014, when the largest outbreak of Ebola in history claimed over 11,000 lives, there is now an effective, if still experimental, vaccine available. The vaccine is being given to close family members and contacts of identified victims, as well as health care workers, a strategy known as ring vaccination. Uganda is also prepared to begin using the vaccine should the outbreak cross its borders.

At least five experimental treatment drugs are also being used in the current outbreak, according to the Doctors Without Borders. These treatments are aimed at reducing the disease’s mortality rate, which is typically 50 per cent, the WHO reports. [STAT, WHO]