Despite the rising panic stemming from the coronavirus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) achieved a small yet momentous victory this week:
The discharge of Masika Semida from an Ebola treatment centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the last person to be diagnosed with Ebola from the August 2018 outbreak.
At its height in 2014, Ebola claimed 11 000 lives across six countries. The recent Ebola outbreak was the second deadliest recorded, killing 2264 people across the country.
“This is very good news,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said. “I remember how the whole world was worried about Ebola, and especially for the thousands of health workers who have sacrificed so much in the fight against Ebola.” However, the WHO remains cautious. The organisation extended the global emergency designation of the DRC in February and the outbreak will not be declared over until 42 days after the last reported case, 17 February 2020.
This outbreak has been combated with better technologies. The approval of an Ebola vaccine with a 98 percent success rate was another milestone recorded in this fight. It was licensed in mid-February by the DRC, Burundi, Ghana and Zambia, enabling wide-spread stockpiling and distribution to occur. Improved diagnostic technologies facilitated the identification of Ebola’s victims.
However, the international response, albeit fast, has not been without criticism.
Trish Newport, an MSF Emergency Coordinator, wrote in an op-ed that “no time was taken to engage with the affected communities, to build trust or to consider the fact that the outbreak was happening in an area that had been plagued in recent years by conflict and had experienced massacres of the civilian population.”
Early in the response, the treatment centre was attacked, forcing MSF to evacuate all of their staff. The relative stabilisation of political violence in recent months certainly helped in tackling the outbreak, but this peace remains fragile. On 18 February 2020, a militia attack killed at least 10 civilians in Beni, the same town as this last Ebola patient.
The DRC has experienced ten Ebola outbreaks since 1976, with this one having a death rate of 65 percent. Its eradication, if confirmed, is a significant victory for all those who have worked and died to fight it (5 percent of Ebola’s victims were healthcare workers.) Nonetheless, the health systems in the DRC remain fragile. In February 2020, the WHO called for a boost of $40 million to continue funding its preparation for epidemics. It is imperative it receives this support. While the coronavirus (2.3 percent death rate) is much less deadly, it has spread at a rapid pace.
The first coronavirus case in the DRC was confirmed less than a week after Masika’s discharge on 8 March 2020.