As The World Focuses On The Spread Of COVID-19, Ebola Resurfaces In The D.R.C.

On 9 April 2020, a new case of Ebola was confirmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), over one month after the last confirmed Ebola patient had been discharged from a treatment centre on 3 March 2020. The case was reported in the eastern city of Beni two days before the WHO was due to announce the official end of the Ebola outbreak in the D.R.C.. As of 17 April 2020, five new cases have been confirmed. These include a 26-year-old electrician, and the 28-year-old motorbike-taxi driver who brought him to the hospital, as accounted for by the WHO deputy incident manager, Boubacar Diallo. The confirmation of these new cases prolongs the world’s second largest Ebola epidemic to date. Since its onset in August 2018, the outbreak has taken over 2200 lives and infected over 3400 people in the D.R.C.’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

“While not welcome news, this is an event we anticipated,” WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, shared in a WHO news release. “We kept response teams in Beni and other high risk areas for precisely this reason,” he explained. However, while such infrastructure may still be in place, funding presents an additional obstacle, as WHO has called for an ‘urgent injection’ of $20 million to sustain emergency medical response teams at least until the beginning of May. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, has acknowledged that the “ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds challenges” to the Ebola response, but urged all partners to “continue this joint effort until we can declare the end of this Ebola outbreak together.” UNICEF D.R.C. Representative Edouard Beigbeder has said, “We are very saddened by this news,” but assures that “UNICEF is still very much on the ground…support[ing] teams conducting decontamination of the home of the confirmed case and continu[ing] to work closely with the health authorities and partners to provide support to the affected families and their children.”

The battle against Ebola in the D.R.C. now continues under a state of health emergency, which was declared by the Congolese government on 24 March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This brings additional challenges for the Ebola response efforts, including access to sufficient funding, and mobility of emergency response staff and teams given the border closures and travel restrictions. Health workers are also responding to measles and cholera outbreaks in the region. The ongoing measles epidemic is the deadliest in the D.R.C.’s history, having claimed 6,200 deaths so far, approximately 85% of which are below the age of five. Persistent conflict in the eastern D.R.C. continues to threaten collective medical response efforts. The WHO reported approximately 390 attacks on Ebola response healthcare facilities in 2019, which killed 11 healthcare workers and injured 83 workers and patients.

In light of these pressing medical needs, it is imperative that the government provides sufficient funding for response efforts to each of these epidemics, and concertedly channels its resources into strengthening national healthcare infrastructure. This includes building trust with frontline communities, as called for by the International Rescue Committee, particularly in areas vulnerable to continued violence and instability. The international community must also remain aware and be proactive in supporting the D.R.C. through advocacy and financial assistance.

Whilst the world is rightly focused on containing the raging COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that we continue to give attention to existing, ongoing epidemics across the globe, including that of Ebola in the D.R.C.. Public and non-governmental healthcare response efforts should collaborate to tackle these multi-pronged epidemics with robust, integrated strategies that are sensitive to local contexts. Such efforts have the greatest potential to bring hope and relief to the affected communities.

Naomi K L Wang