Heavily criticised for its response to the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, the WHO is now on the front line in dealing with the emergence of new cases in DR Congo. It says that it is preparing for the “worst case scenario”.
“We’re very concerned and are preparing for all scenarios, including worst case scenarios,” Peter Salama, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Health Emergencies Programme, said on March 11 about the re-emergence of Ebola in the DRC.
In light of the use of this worrying declaration from the WHO, Médecins sans Frontères has sought to sooth fears. “This is by no means the same magnitude as in 2014-16 – the most serious Ebola epidemic since its first known outbreak in 1976, killing 11,300 people, 99 percent of them in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia,” said Axelle Ronsse, emergency co-ordinator for MSF Belgium, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“This time it’s located in a remote part of the DRC that’s used to these small epidemics,” Ronsse pointed out.
This is the ninth time that the DRC has faced an outbreak of Ebola, which was named after a river in the country near where it first struck in 1976.
Goal to prevent spread to urban areas
Between April 4 and May 9, the WHO reported 32 Ebola cases (two confirmed, 18 probable and 12 suspected) in the Bikoro region, northeast of the capital Kinshasa and near the border with Congo-Brazzaville.
So far, 18 people have died, and the first tests showed that this outbreak is in the form of the “Zaire” strain – one of the most dangerous. “More samples are being taken for testing,” Salama noted.
Although the outbreak is in an inaccessible part of the country, Ebola has hit three different places and has spread to three healthcare workers, one of whom has died. The WHO is concerned about its possible spread to the nearest urban centre, the town of Mbandaka, where the virus would be harder to contain.
Médecins sans Frontières, which has also sent teams to the affected area, shares the WHO’s anxiety about the virus spreading to built-up areas. “The important thing is to confine the epidemic to the villages where it’s emerged so that it doesn’t get to more densely populated places,” said Ronsse, who added that she works “in close collaboration with the Congolese authorities”.
In total, WHO has released $1 million (€840,000) to “stop the spread of Ebola in neighbouring provinces and countries”, including the provision of an airlift to deliver equipment to the area, which suffers from poor infrastructure. They don't want to waste time or repeat the mistakes that were made in 2014.
'We will now screen everyone arriving from DRC'
That year – after a series of alerts from MSF, which was on the frontline of the fight against the rapidly spreading epidemic – the WHO was accused of not being responsive enough. It only declared a state of emergency after Ebola had killed 1000 people.
The WHO got a new leadership team in 2017 and seems to have learned from the 2014 fiasco. “This time we didn’t need to step up because everyone is doing the job of raising awareness,” said MSF’s Ronsse.
African countries also seem to have learned from the 2014 outbreak. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have set up specialised Ebola laboratories, which provide the necessary screening tests. And Guinea, the Gambia, Kenya and Nigeria have all announded in recent days that they are taking steps to prevent Ebola from spreading to their territory. Nigeria has also set up an “emergency centre” in case Ebola reaches the country, while the country’s health minister Isaac Adewole has announced that “we will now screen everyone arriving from the DRC and neighbouring countries”.
After the mistakes in dealing with the 2014 Ebola outbreak, this time everyone seems to have prepared to deal with the threat.