The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an “Ebola epidemic” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after they confirmed nine cases linked to the virus in the remote forested region. Three people have reportedly died, causing alarm among health officials who fear that this could be another outbreak similar to the 2014 epidemic which took the lives of around 11,000 people.
The announcement was made on May 12 after a group of people began exhibiting symptoms on April 22 in the Bas-Uélé region of DRC. WHO’s executive director for emergencies, Peter Salama, wrote in a statement, “An investigation team led by the Ministry of Health and supported by WHO and partners has deployed and is expected to reach the affected area in the coming days.” A WHO spokesperson also commented on Yahoo.com, “The case is in a very remote zone, very forested, so we are a little lucky. We always take this very seriously.”
The Ministry of Health was first made aware of the situation after a now-confirmed Ebola patient drove across the vast province on a motorbike to receive medical care. This patient had blood in his vomit and stool. Because Bas-Uélé was so far away from its neighbors, it took 10 days for samples of the patient’s blood and stool to arrive in the capital of Kinshasa to be tested. By this time, the original patient and the driver of the motorbike, who was also his brother, had died. The ministry health team later identified six other people from the same village exhibiting the same symptoms. The health workers who treated the patients without protective gear were deemed to be in “grave danger of contracting the disease,” further limiting the help affected victims received. However, representatives of Alima, a medical humanitarian organization working in the country, said that due to Bas-Uélé’s remote location, the outbreak would be relatively small and easily contained. “There will be more cases, but it is more likely to look like other outbreaks in the Congo, a smaller outbreak, ending faster,” said Susan Shepherd, a medical coordinator of Alima in a statement to the WashingtonPost.com.
Shepherd may have been referring to the previous outbreak in the neighboring province of Haut-Uélé in 2012 where there were 41 confirmed cases of Ebola and 18 deaths. The outbreak only lasted four months.
Hooray for the vaccine!
Unsurprisingly, the response of the medical community is the “curative” recommendation of the Ebola vaccine. DRC officials have stated that this recent epidemic involves the Zaire strain, which is the stain that was present during the 2014 outbreak. According to a news release on the WashingtonPost.com, scientists are supposedly in the final stages of developing a vaccine that targets this specific strain. The same article states, “the vaccine has not yet been approved [by] the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but could be made available under an emergency use authorization.”
Just recently, the WHO announced plans to use their controversial vaccine in DRC — their “proving ground” despite the vaccine not deemed effective by the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. In an article on Nature.com, the organization has not yet made a firm decision on whether to deploy it in DRC but have supposedly stockpiled 300,000 emergency doses of the new vaccine just in case.
There are currently 12 Ebola vaccines in development; although the Merck vaccine is the most developed. The WHO’s advisory group has strongly encouraged the use of this vaccine for this recent outbreak.