Officials with the World Health Organization confirmed an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the weekend. So far, there are at least 19 suspected cases and three deaths since the first infection in late April.
Health officials from Congo, the U.N. and humanitarian groups were immediately sent to the north to respond to the outbreak. Doctors Without Borders announced today it is sending a 14-person team to work with the Congolese Ministry of Health. Some 15 metric tons of medical and logistical supplies were sent by cargo plane to help the medical charity’s team conduct an assessment and potentially construct a treatment center.
While news reports point out that the last outbreak was a tragic episode in West Africa, the only similarity between the two outbreaks is the virus. More than 11,000 people died when a slow response in a region that had not experience a prior Ebola outbreak struggled to contain the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) was criticized for its handling of the epidemic and implemented reforms to prevent making the same mistakes.
The Congo is different. Ebola was discovered in the country in 1976 and it has dealt with seven outbreaks before this one. Monitoring and response structures are in place to prevent a situation similar to what happened in West Africa. The last outbreak occurred in August 2014, resulting 66 cases and 49 deaths. It ended by November thanks to the quick response.
This time around, cases were reported soon after the initial infection. A 45-year-old man fell ill on April 22 and died on his way to the hospital. His taxi driver and a hospital staffer who assisted him died shortly after, leading the WHO and Congo’s ministry of health to investigate the situation on May 10. The outbreak was confirmed and the WHO dispatched Africa regional director Matshidiso Moeti to support the Congolese government.
“I am here to assure the government of DR Congo that in collaboration with the U.N. system and other partners, we will work together to respond to this outbreak,” Moeti said at the meeting. “WHO has already mobilized technical experts to be deployed on the ground and is ready to provide the leadership and technical expertise required to mount a coordinated and effective response.”
Officials are working to trace more than 100 people connected to the suspected cases. Situated near the border with the Central African Republic, the northeastern province of Bas-Uele is relatively remote. It makes for a more difficult outbreak control, but given past successes and the speed of the response, officials are optimistic that it will not last long.
The WHO also is prepared to use successfully tested vaccines if needed. The rVSV-Zebov was tested in Guinea during the West African outbreak and provided complete protection, according to research published in The Lancet. There are no plans to use it yet, but it is an option if the outbreak continues to spread and is the same Ebola Zaire strain that occurred in West Africa.
“Preparations are being accelerated to ensure that vaccine and equipment be available on site,” a WHO spokesman said in a statement. “Appropriate ethical and regulatory authorization has been sought as the vaccine can only be used under ‘extended access’ US-FDA provisions as it is not yet registered.”
Some 300,000 doses of the vaccine are available, according to the GAVI vaccine alliance. Despite fears in the wake of the West African epidemic, the success of prior Ebola responses in the Congo indicate that the vaccine is unlikely to be needed.