The region’s healthcare systems face a difficult task of containing and minimising the spread of the deadly and infectious Ebola virus, which was recently reported in Bikoro, Equateur Province in Democratic Republic of Congo.
By May 10, 17 people had been reported killed by the deadly virus in DR Congo.
Ebola is often fatal if untreated and has an average fatality rate of around 50 per cent according to the World Health Organisation. It is transmitted to people through direct contact with wild animals and spreads through human-to-human transmission.
Countries in the region have re-introduced routine screening of all travellers at points of entry and cautioned citizens to be vigilant.
The risk to public health across the region remains high not only because of the internal weakness of DR Congo’s healthcare system to contain the virus, but also the porous nature of the country’s borders. This risk is also heightened by the current flow of displaced people due to the ongoing conflict.
Bikoro is situated on the shores of Lake Tumba in the northwestern part of the country near the Republic of Congo, which leaves border communities vulnerable.
Moreover, all cases of the virus were reported from Ikoko Iponge health facility located about 30 kilometres from Bikoro. The health facilities have limited capacity and rely on international organisations to provide them with medical supplies according to WHO.
The WHO says it is working closely with DR Congo to rapidly scale up its operations and mobilise health partners based on the successful response to a similar outbreak in 2017.
Specifically, the WHO plans to deploy epidemiologists, logisticians, clinicians, infection prevention and control experts, risk communications experts and vaccination support teams in the coming days.
“Our top priority is to get to Bikoro to work alongside the DR Congo government and its partners to reduce the loss of life and suffering related to this latest Ebola virus outbreak,” said Peter Salama, WHO deputy director-general, Emergency Preparedness and Response.
Ninth Ebola outbreak
However, experts warn that containing the deadly virus will require not only early and co-ordinated interventions in DR Congo, but also across the region.
Ahmed Khan, a postdoctoral research fellow in Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, said epidemics, like the outbreak of Ebola, which is spread through interactions between society and nature, require more than just a health response.
“Paying attention to wildlife consumption may help prevent the outbreak of diseases. Human and wildlife interactions have led to potential Ebola contagion through pathogen hosts especially fruit bats, swine and apes,” he said in his paper titled, “Dealing with African epidemics needs more than just a health response” published in The Conversation.
This is DR Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak since the discovery of the virus in the country in 1976, according to WHO.
In the past five weeks, there have been 21 suspected viral haemorrhagic fevers in and around Ikoko Iponge, including 17 deaths.
The last Ebola outbreak in the country occurred in 2017 in Likati Health Zone, Bas Uele Province, in the northern part of the country and was quickly contained.
“WHO is working closely with other partners, including Médecins Sans Frontières, to support the DR Congo government in preventing and controlling the spread of the disease,” said Allarangar Yokouide, WHO Representative in the DR Congo.
According to WHO, an effective response to the 2017 Ebola outbreak was achieved through timely alerts by local authorities of suspect cases and immediate testing of blood samples due to a better equipped national laboratory.
This is in addition to an early announcement of the outbreak by the government, rapid response by local and national health authorities with the support of international partners, and speedy access to flexible funding.
In Kenya, the health ministry has begun screening travellers entering the country through different points including the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and the Busia and Malaba border posts along the border with Uganda.
Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki said health personnel have been deployed to the entry points to test all passengers for possible symptoms of the Ebola virus.
The ministry also said it had established a National Health Emergencies Council, tasked with preventing the spread of the deadly virus in the country.
In Tanzania, the government has strengthened surveillance around Kigoma, Mwanza, Karega and Katavi as a precaution. This is in addition to constituting a national taskforce along the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika to conduct mass sensitisation about the Ebola virus.
“We are working closely with our medical teams to monitor the situation and take precautions over the deadly disease, especially communities along Lake Tanganyika, which borders DR Congo,” said Ummy Mwalimu, Tanzania’s Minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children.
In 2014, more than 11,300 people mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were killed in the worst Ebola epidemic in history, severely affecting Africa’s tourism sector as travellers shunned the continent.
-Additional reporting by Victor Kiprop and Beatrice Materu.