Containing the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to face challenges, but the response has not been a failure, said the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top official.
In a press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, not only gave an update about the outbreak, but addressed recent concerns about the response to the outbreak, particularly in light of Médecins Sans Frontières suspending medical activities following an attack on an Ebola treatment center.
The latest data from the WHO indicates there have been 927 Ebola cases and 584 deaths. However, Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the outbreak as “contracting,” with now half as many cases being reported per week as were reported in January. In addition, he said, the outbreak has not spread to other parts of the DRC nor has it spread into neighboring countries. Four areas in the North Kivu province, including Beni and Mangina, have been cleared of the outbreak, and it has been contained in 11 out of 28 communities.
“We cannot say it is failing when the outbreak is contracting,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “Leaving the area is not an option. Evacuation is not an option because we would be losers and lose what we’ve gained so far.”
However, security remains the number one concern in this outbreak for both communities and responders, with constant threats from local armed groups, Allied Democratic Forces, and Mai-Mai. Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that their colleagues are also eager to continue their work, but they are asking for protection from armed groups.
“This is a challenge we have seen before. That part of the DRC is an area where there has been armed conflict for many decades,” he added. “Armed groups in that region don’t have any language except shooting at you. The only language they know is shooting.”
Adhanom Ghebreyesus experienced some of that violence firsthand on his recent trip to the DRC with CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD. He described an attack on an Ebola treatment center in Butembo at 6 a.m. that killed a policeman and injured three workers. Five hours later, the center was reopened.
“I learned a lot from that incident. It gave me confidence that our responders and partners will finish this job, because I have witnessed myself that their dedication is really unparalleled,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “They left bullet holes in the center, but they did not dampen the spirits of the health workers who work there.”
The Ebola outbreak is currently concentrated in Butembo and Katwa, with Adhanom Ghebreyesus reporting that more than half of the new cases were in Katwa.
But the WHO and partners have maintained their ring vaccination and containment strategy to combat the outbreak. So far, more than 87,000 people have been vaccinated, including 27,000 healthcare workers, with 58,000 contacts registered. Over 400 patients have been treated with experimental therapeutics, the WHO reported.
Adhanom Ghebreyesus added that the community response has been positive, with more than 90% of people who were approached agreeing to be vaccinated, and 90% accepting follow-up visits. In addition, this community has been more accepting of burial teams than any other area, he said.
Still, when asked how long the outbreak might continue, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the goal would be to “finish in the next 6 months.” But he emphasized that the WHO and partner organizations will not leave when the outbreak is over, staying instead to help develop a stronger local health system for the community.
In the recently released strategic response plan, the WHO stressed a focus on community engagement and local capacity building. But to do that takes money, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. While an estimated $148 million is needed for response efforts, the WHO currently has a funding gap of $60 million.
Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said that while he is not planning on convening the emergency committee because the outbreak is not a “global threat,” they are following the situation daily and “will not hesitate to convene the committee again if needed.”