As the Ebola outbreak continues to devastate the Democratic Republic of Congo, the minister of health visited affected areas to prepare for a third strategic response plan, which will cover the period from February to April, the ministry reported Thursday.
“This constant adaptation of the national strategy demonstrates the dynamic nature of this response to the most complex Ebola outbreak in the country’s history,” the ministry said in a statement. This is the 10th outbreak since 1976 in Congo, where the virus is endemic, and the second this year.
Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga visited the cities of Beni, Goma and Butembo in North Kivu province, which is the epicenter of the outbreak, according to the World Health Organization.
Cases have also been reported in neighboring Ituri province, which along with North Kivu is among the most populous in the nation. The two provinces border Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
The total number of probable Ebola patients in this outbreak, which began August 1, is 560 as of Wednesday, with 336 deaths, the ministry stated. An additional 87 people who doctors suspect may be sick with Ebola are under investigation. The ministry also reported that 193 people have recovered from the life-threatening illness.
On average, Ebola – which causes fever, severe headache and in some cases hemorrhaging – kills about half of those infected, but fatality rates in individual outbreaks have varied. The latest outbreak has a case fatality rate of about 58%.
In addition to preparing for the third response plan, the minister took another look at the second plan, which covers the period November to January and was updated this month in order to strengthen the health system.
The minister also held meetings to ensure better leadership of the provincial health authorities in overseeing the operations of the response.
Not only is North Kivu experiencing this deadly Ebola outbreak, but long-term conflict smolders there, with 50 armed groups causing intermittent violence, according to WHO. The UN public health agency estimates that more than a million refugees and internally displaced people are traveling through and out of North Kivu and Ituri, and this movement is a potential risk factor for the spread of Ebola. Another complication: a high number of malaria cases in the region.
Despite difficulties, “meaningful progress has been made across the outbreak affected areas, most especially in Beni where there has been a general decrease in case incidence in recent weeks,” WHO said in a statement Thursday. However, the agency also said that responding to the outbreak “continues to be a complex challenge.”
Activities are obstructed by both “pockets of community reluctance and the conflict,” WHO reported. Additional challenges faced by health workers include the possibility of heightened political tension arising from a delayed presidential election, a “deterioration of the overall security situation and violent civil unrest.”
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There is hope: The containment seen in Beni and the city of Mangina “demonstrates how the outbreak can be controlled when response activities can be scaled and implemented with the participation of local communities,” WHO said.
In late November, the ministry announced the launch of a first randomized control trial for three Ebola treatment drugs. Additionally, 49,940 people have been inoculated with an experimental vaccine since early August.
The current outbreak is now the second-deadliest and second largest Ebola outbreak in history, topped only by one in West Africa in 2014, when the disease killed more than 11,000 people, according to WHO.