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Health Workers Battle for Containment as Ebola Outbreak Continues

Latest shipment of protective gear, essential for containing the highly contagious disease, arrived in the DRC this week.


DRC Ebola Outbreak

Gloves and boots at an Ebola treatment center in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC is currently experiencing the second worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history. (Photo by Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is showing no signs of abatement as it rages into its second year with at least 139 new cases and 85 deaths over the past two weeks. The border city of Goma, which is home to almost 2 million people, saw its fourth case earlier this month, which further raised fears that the outbreak will jump into neighboring countries or farther abroad.

The WHO, which declared the outbreak a global health emergency, has reported a total of 2,837 cases with 1,898 deaths as of August 12, which represents the latest figures available. This death rate of 67% far exceeds the death rate during the West Africa outbreak of 2014-2016, which was 39%. That outbreak claimed 11,325 lives, according to the CDC.

Even as the official numbers are staggering, and represent the second largest Ebola outbreak on record, the head of DRC’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, told reporters in Goma last week that he believes only about 50% of cases in his country are being identified.

In response to these latest developments, Rwanda briefly closed its border with DRC on August 1, before reopening it within 24 hours. South Sudan, Uganda, and now Rwanda are maintaining open border crossings, as per WHO recommendations. However, Saudi Arabia has stopped issuing visas to DRC citizens, and travelers coming from DRC, ahead of the upcoming Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Aside from three infected individuals who crossed into Uganda briefly in June, there have been no confirmed Ebola cases outside of DRC.

The continuing spread of the disease is occurring despite 170,000 people having been vaccinated, 77 million domestic and international travelers in DRC having been screened, thousands of samples being tested in laboratories every week, and 440,000 people provided with food assistance, according to a joint statement from WHO, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

Violence towards healthcare workers, resistance to vaccination, and ongoing political instability — more than 100,000 people fled their homes last April — have all contributed to the outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri, according to multiple sources, including the WHO and a July paper in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Illustrating the degree of mistrust towards healthcare workers and authorities in North Kivu, a 2018 survey published in The Lancet reported that 25% of respondents said they believed Ebola is not real.

A potentially monumental development was announced earlier this week after a group of prominent health organizations reported that two experimental Ebola treatments, called REGN-EB3 and mAb114, had effectiveness rates up to 94% and 89%, respectively. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, World Health Organization, and Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale-led study will conclude in late September or early October.

But even as researchers and doctors continue to develop scientific answers in the forms of vaccines, treatments and containment procedures, a WHO spokesperson told National Geographic that the social element should not be dismissed, noting that when medical care providers have gained the trust of local communities, “we have seen outbreaks end.”

Direct Relief is continuing to help support the DRC Ministry of Health’s response to the crisis and shipped a 13-pallet donation, weighing almost 5,000 pounds, to NGO Jericho Road, filled with critical personal protection equipment, including coveralls, masks, tents, bandages, reflective vests and first aid tape.

After it arrived on August 13, it was trucked from Kigali, Rwanda to Goma, DRC. In Goma, it will be transferred to the DRC Ministry of Health’s Ebola Response Team and sent to North Kivu, which is ground zero for this outbreak.

Shipments of emergency Ebola personal protective equipment were requested by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in South Sudan for their clinics in the border towns of Yei and Morobo and are being prepared.

Direct Relief has also purchased 26 additional pallets of emergency Ebola personal protective equipment including gloves and gowns, in anticipation of future requests from NGOs and government agencies in the DRC, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

Additional reporting contributed by Daniel Hovey and Kayla McCarthy.

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