Aug. 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has now reached more than 2,600 cases and 1,800 deaths.
The current outbreak was declared in North Kivu and Ituri provinces in the DRC just days after an outbreak that broke out in Bikoro in Equateur Province was declared defeated.
While the current outbreak has been largely contained in comparison to the 2014-2016 West Africa outbreak, which saw 28,616 cases of Ebola and 11,310 deaths across in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, it’s proving difficult to tackle.
There are a number of factors playing into this scenario.
Here’s what you need to know about the current crisis that does not just impact health in the DRC — but could impact the entire world.
It’s Now A Global Health Emergency
Dr. Daniel Lucey, adjunct professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center, worked in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak, providing care to patients and training health care workers on personal protective gear. In July, he co-wrote an op-ed for the Washington Times, calling for the declaration of a public health emergency.
Days later, the World Health Organization (WHO) did in fact announce that the outbreak was a global health emergency.
Lucey says it was essential to declare this emergency so more efforts could put into slowing down the epidemic.
BREAKING NEWS: The #Ebola outbreak in #DRC constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, citing concerning geographical expansion of the virus: WHO Director-General, @DrTedros following the IHR Emergency Committee’s recommendation #alert— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) July 17, 2019
While Lucey notes the importance of increased security, he says that the response needs to be about much more than just Ebola.
“If you want to gain the trust of the many communities … then you have to show that you care more than just about Ebola because it might come to other countries including our own,” he told Global Citizen.
He referenced the need to tackle health issues like malaria, typhoid, cholera, and maternal and child health.
Lucey also noted the importance of responding to unintended consequences of declaring a public health emergency, like countries closing their borders or airlines canceling flights. Closing borders that people actively travel across and rely on for their livelihoods would devastate communities and canceling flights would impact access to vital health resources — and do nothing to secure local trust.
“There was not enough money provided by the international community for the response, and now the hope is that there will be much more money provided because it’s essential to begin to get the epidemic under control,” Lucey said.
Violence and Mistrust Are Making the Outbreak Difficult to Tackle
The most significant issues in tackling the current outbreak in the DRC is the intense conflict surrounding the North Kivu province, as well as the severe distrust in the community.
“It has been a long, painful, deadly year for the population living in the Ebola-affected areas in the DRC,” Trish Newport, deputy manager of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Ebola programs in the DRC, said in a statement. “Ebola treatment centers have been viciously attacked and destroyed, health workers have been murdered because they worked in the Ebola response, security forces ‘protecting’ Ebola responders have killed civilians, and people continue to die of Ebola.”
The Congolese Ministry of Health, the WHO, and other international organizations like MSF has been working to respond to the outbreak, but community mistrust has continued to hamper immunization and treatment efforts.
Some people do not believe the outbreak is real, while others believe it was created by NGOs or the UN — either as a means to rationalize why they are in the country, or else to pillage the country’s mineral resources. Others feel that the Ebola response should not take precedence over other diseases.
And still others are afraid to visit Ebola treatment centers, which increases the disease’s ability to spread.
There Is an Ebola Vaccine
Despite the added obstacle of violence, which has prevented health teams from reaching everyone, the health community is armed with the experimental Ebola vaccine and investigational treatments — and the fact that the outbreak has remained as contained as it has is largely thanks to the vaccine.
But the vaccine alone will not be enough to stop Ebola from spreading.
“When I see families and communities ripped apart by Ebola, it makes me so sad. It didn't have to be like this, and unless a drastic change happens in the management of the Ebola response, the outbreak is not going to end anytime soon,” Newport said.
Attacking this outbreak will require a comprehensive approach, Lucey said.
“It’s not a movie, it’s not a book,” he said. “There’s no guarantee when it will end, or how it will end, or even if it will end.”