Ebola outbreak declared over in DRC but experts warn of risk of resurgence

Sarah Newey
·2-min read
A health worker leaves the treatment area at an Ebola centre in Butembo, North Kivu, earlier this year -  Simon Townsley
A health worker leaves the treatment area at an Ebola centre in Butembo, North Kivu, earlier this year - Simon Townsley

The end of an Ebola outbreak that killed six people in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been met with cautious celebration, amid concerns that new epidemics in the country have become increasingly frequent.

In the latest outbreak - the country’s 12th since the deadly haemorrhagic fever was first identified in 1976 - a dozen people were infected in North Kivu province in eastern DRC, after the virus was detected in the city of Butembo in early February.

The outbreak is the country’s fourth in less than three years and emerged just nine months after a protracted two-year epidemic in North Kivu - which saw 3,481 cases, including 2,299 deaths - was finally declared over.

While the exact source of the latest outbreak has not been confirmed, genome sequencing by the DRC’s National Institute of BioMedical Research found the two were linked.

Ebola can persist in the body fluids of patients who have recovered, even if they have no symptoms. Earlier this year in Guinea, scientists found that a “persistently infected survivor” from the 2013 to 2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa may have sparked an ongoing outbreak. This shocked experts due to the long interval between the events.

While the outbreak in the DRC has been swiftly contained, the World Health Organization urged authorities to retain strong surveillance systems as “potential flare-ups are possible in the months to come”.

“Although the outbreak has ended, we must stay alert for possible resurgence and at the same time use the growing expertise on emergency response to address other health threats the country faces,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, director of the WHO in Africa.

She added that the outbreak was contained by the DRC in part due to the country’s previous experience tackling Ebola, plus the arrival of critical tools including an Ebola vaccine - which was given to nearly 2,000 people at high risk, including more than 500 frontline workers.

“Huge credit must be given to the local health workers and the national authorities for their prompt response, tenacity, experience and hard work that brought this outbreak under control,” said Dr Moeti.

To stem future outbreaks, there are growing calls for a shift towards preventive strategies to stop the disease spreading in high risk areas.

“We need to continue investing in research and development for Ebola, including on vaccines,” Dr Soce Fall, deputy head of emergency response at the WHO, told the Telegraph last month.

“We are halfway. We cannot just stop. In the future, we need to move to a more preventative measure. If we don’t it will have a catastrophic impact on global health.”

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