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Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

8th Jun 2018
Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

A 3D medical animation still of Ebola Virus (Photo: CC)

The Democratic Republic of Congo has reported several cases of Ebola virus.  The cases were confirmed as Ebola by laboratory testing.

The cases were initially confined to rural areas but concern has been raised about a confirmed case in the north-western city of Mbandaka, which has a population of 1.2 million. So far at least 45 people are believed to have been infected in the current outbreak and 25 deaths are being investigated. The WHO is monitoring the situation but at this stage, they are confident the outbreak can be contained.

In 2014 an Ebola outbreak occurred in West Africa that spread to several countries with thousands of people becoming infected and took many months to get under control, for this reason, all cases are closely monitored by the WHO.

Ebola outbreaks are usually seen in more rural areas but the reports of a case in Mbandaka is of concern as it is a transport hub on the River Congo, raising fears the virus could spread to other areas. The WHO has called an emergency meeting to assess the situation and declared that at this point the Ebola outbreak is not yet an international public health emergency but is putting measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

Ebola is an infectious illness caused by a virus. The disease affects humans through close contact with infected animals, including chimpanzees, fruit bats and forest antelope. It is spread between humans by direct contact with bodily fluids, so caring for a sick relative or even handling a dead body can pass on the virus. The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks, which means people can travel before they become ill. Initial symptoms of the virus are similar to flu and include sudden high fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and sore throat. Subsequent stages are vomiting, diarrhoea and in some cases both internal and external bleeding. People caring for the sick are at risk of catching the disease if the correct precautions are not taken to avoid contact with any body fluids.

The last Ebola outbreak in West Africa was first reported in March 2014, and rapidly became the deadliest occurrence of the disease since its discovery in 1976. The epidemic continued for nearly two years and involved six countries (Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the US and Mali), with over 28, 000 cases recorded and over 11, 000 deaths. However, the WHO admits these figures are estimates as it is often hard to collect data from remote areas. In the later stages of the epidemic vaccines that were still in the testing, phases were used to bring the disease under control. In January 2016 the WHO declared the last of the countries affected, Liberia, to be Ebola-free.

In the current outbreak, the WHO said it had identified more than 500 people who had potentially come into contact with Ebola patients in the country. These will be closely monitored for any signs of illness and were likely to be among the first to receive an Ebola vaccine. The vaccine is still in the experimental stage and as yet unlicensed but was effective in limited trials during the West Africa outbreak in 2016. However, one problem is that the vaccine needs to be stored at a temperature of between -60 and -80 C, which is a challenge in DR Congo because electricity supplies are unreliable.

Rachel Kayani


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