KIGALI, Rwanda

Nearly a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Ebola-free, a fresh wave of the epidemic has hit the western part of the country.

Confirming that 48 new cases have been detected in DRC’s Equateur province, Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert admitted that this is still a very active outbreak and a great cause of concern.

This could be the 11th Ebola outbreak in the country. On May 14, the WHO and the DRC government had declared the country free from the 10th outbreak of the epidemic.

Ebola discovered 40 years ago, known as a hemorrhagic fever virus is spread through direct contact with body fluids –blood, saliva, sweat, tears, mucus, vomit, feces, breast milk, urine, and semen — of infected people.

The virus causes clotting problems leading to internal bleeding, inflammation, and tissue damages. It is also spread by touching things that have been contaminated with these fluids.

Although more than 300,000 people have been inoculated with a vaccine developed by a US drug company, health experts said the security and social challenges are making combating the disease difficult.

In April 2019, Richard Mouzoko, a WHO epidemiologist, was killed in an attack on the Butembo University Hospital, leading to derailment and suspension of vaccination.

Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, the director of the National Institute for Biomedical Research in the capital Kinshasa, told reporters that more than 80% of people who were vaccinated did not contract the disease, while those who got infected had relatively mild symptoms.

He said that the vaccine can generate a quick immune response within 10 days after taking a single dose.

Measles and COVID-19 also affecting the poor country

Health experts are concerned that, the DRC, one of the world’s poorest countries is already dealing with a measles epidemic that has killed more than 6,000 people, as well as COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the US-based Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, the Central African country has so far reported more than 8,135 COVID-19 infections with 190 deaths.

In Africa, five countries have experienced Ebola outbreaks over the past six years including DR Congo, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. The worst outbreak which occurred in West Africa from 2014-2016, was attributed to the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus.

The outbreak infected more than 28,600 people and killed 11,325.

The victims included healthcare professionals, which left hospitals understaffed.

The last outbreak of Ebola was reported in the North Kivu province of DR Congo in August 2018. The 10th Ebola outbreak in the region, since the discovery of the virus, also spilled over to Ituri province, South Kivu, and across the border in neighboring Uganda.

Since this outbreak, the virus-infected 3,470 people in the country and killed 2,287 people, according to the WHO.

The earlier 2014 outbreak had affected densely populated areas, which also complicated the contact tracing.

Response to Ebola took time

According to health experts, since Ebola had not been diagnosed in humans in that region, it took a while to understand the disease and to develop defensive measures. The transportation of infected dead bodies to their hometowns, a tradition in the West African countries also compounded the problem.

“A stronger health system could have prevented the outbreak, and could even have helped to stop it once it had begun in the three countries,” said Ifeanyi Nsofor, a medical practitioner and chief executive of EpiAFRIC, an African health consultancy group.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) — an international humanitarian medical non-governmental organization — said its teams were responding to the epidemic in the Bikoro and Bolomba health zones of Equateur province, by supporting the improvement of isolation units in hospitals.

“We urgently need a large-scale immunization strategy; the availability of specific drugs to prevent the spread of the virus and treat infected patients; and the decentralization of care and patients’ integration into the public health system as an important tool to improve access and build community trust,“ said a statement issued by the MSF.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Eugene Ilunga, a DR Congo-based health expert, said the epidemic survivors require particular attention to deal with some life-changing health complications.

“Ebola survivors can be a useful resource in raising awareness based on their experience of having been infected and survived the disease,” he added.

Last month, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, announced $40 million to help DR Congo to prepare a response to Ebola and other health emergencies.

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