The deadly Ebola virus has broken out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but things are very different this time in the speed of response and tools available for this outbreak versus the one that hit West Africa in 2014-2016. For one, the World Health Organization is already involved.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the WHO, led a delegation to the DRC May 13 that included Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, and Dr. Peter Salama, WHO deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response. Tedros and the others went to personally evaluate the response to the country’s Ebola outbreak and meet with President Joseph Kabila and the country’s minister of health.
Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at a Washington research organization, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, conducted research on the West African outbreak that claimed more than 11,000 lives and is carefully watching the current outbreak in a rural area of northeast DRC.
“I thought it was very commendable and a great sign of the change of outlook that Dr. Tedros was personally there on the ground, and that was very important,” Morrison said. “It rallies the troops, it shows determination and commitment and speed.”
One of the changes from the 2014 outbreak is that the WHO has an emergency fund to get experts in place to start to contain the outbreak.
A team left Wednesday for the country’s rural northwest. The first batch of experimental Ebola vaccines arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo May 16 and will be administered to health care workers and those exposed to the virus in days. Merck, the pharmaceutical giant that makes the vaccine, has promised the WHO to supply whatever is needed for this outbreak. Although the vaccine is not licensed, and therefore is called “experimental,” it was proved safe and effective in West Africa.
A multidisciplinary team, including WHO experts and staff from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), has been in Bikoro, where the outbreak first occurred May 10. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has personnel in place. In addition, the World Food Program is providing an air bridge to get the vaccine and supplies to the affected region with several flights a day. Treatment centers that isolate the sick are in place, as are hand-washing stations containing a solution of bleach and water to kill the virus.
'A lot of learning'
Morrison said what is unfolding in Central Africa “shows a lot of learning and a different pattern of response. The response to this outbreak has been quite different from a very delayed response over a six month period in 2014 in the outbreak in West Africa.”
That, and that this is the ninth Ebola outbreak in the DRC since 1974, when the country was named Zaire and the virus was named after the Ebola River, near the source of the outbreak. Morrison points out that Congo has a lot of experience in dealing with outbreaks of Ebola, but Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in West Africa hadn’t experienced Ebola until 2014. The international response was slow, and more than 11,000 people died as a result.
Morrison says a lot of lessons were learned from that epidemic. Even though the virus is in a remote, rural area, no one involved is complacent.
“We are very concerned, and we are planning for all scenarios, including the worst case scenario,” Dr. Salama said.
In that scenario, the virus could travel to heavily populated urban areas and get out of control. Bikoro is on a lake that feeds into rivers that connect to Kinshasa, Brazzaville and other major cities. In Congo the government, WHO and others are working to make sure, if at all possible, this doesn’t happen.