WHO DECLARES EBOLA OUTBREAK AN INTERNATIONAL HEALTH EMERGENCY
By Alex Pollock
Almost a year after the second worst Ebola outbreak in history began in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC], the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the crisis a “public health emergency of international concern,” PHEIC for short – a label it has only used four times before. The decision was made at an emergency meeting on the recommendations of a panel of independent experts. More than 2,500 people have become infected since the outbreak was officially declared on 1 August 2018. (The Atlantic)
The current outbreak
The current Ebola crisis is the tenth experienced by the DRC since the virus was first discovered near the Ebola River in 1976. According to the WHO, as of 17 July 2019 there have been 2,438 confirmed cases, 1,611 confirmed deaths, and 12 new diagnoses each day – making the current outbreak both the largest and deadliest the country has seen. The nearly two-thirds mortality rate has caused the WHO to declare the outbreak a PHEIC on 17 July, a classification only made four times before – the swine flu epidemic in 2009, the resurgence of polio in 2014, the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, and the Zika outbreak in 2016. The status of PHEIC means the epidemic calls for a significantly higher level of international aid in order to curb its spread.
The outbreak is rumoured to have started in the North Kivu province before moving into surrounding areas. It took 224 days to reach 1,000 reported cases, yet only 71 more days to escalate to 2,000 active cases. The Zaire Ebola strain currently affecting the area is the same strain that killed over 11,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from 2014-2016.
The virus had been contained to the rural provinces of the DRC until 15 July when the first person died in Goma, a city hub close to the Rwandan border. Goma is home to between one and two million people and is a focus area for water and air transport. Many of the country’s usable roads pass through Goma, raising concerns that cases could spread rapidly throughout the city.
The West African epidemic, 2014-2016
To date, the West African epidemic was the largest Ebola outbreak since the virus’ discovery. The majority of the 28,610 reported cases were in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The outbreak was declared by the WHO on 23 March 2014 and was shortly after declared a PHEIC. The identification of infected persons was difficult due to a lack of stable infrastructure and a fragile healthcare system in infected areas. But with assistance from multiple international agencies, the epidemic was declared over in June 2016 after claiming the lives of over 11,000 people.
Containing the current outbreak
According to the United Nations’ emergency response coordinator, David Gressly, the outbreak is still “months away from a conclusion”. As the DRC is home to a variety of armed groups, ongoing civil conflict has proved a major roadblock to curbing the spread of the virus. Mai-Mai militia fighters are active in the region of the epidemic, and threats to health workers in the area have prevented both post-infection care and the implementation of a preventative vaccination process. Since January, there have been around 200 attacks on health aid workers in the DRC, and emergency workers are still unable to reach many of the affected areas due to safety concerns.
A mistrust of outsiders has also led to many people not seeking treatment in aid centers, and instead dying in their homes. Traditional burial practices call for members of the community to handle the bodies of deceased loved ones, and the lack of protection during burial is causing further exposure to the disease. Many loved ones of those killed by Ebola have fought local aid workers over burial practices and have been exposed by exhuming bodies to bury them in accordance with traditon. Additionally, the culture of the area is heavily reliant on ‘witch doctors’, who have spread ideas minimising the severity of Ebola, causing many in rural communities to not take precautions seriously.
The WHO has released reports citing a lack of monetary resources necessary to slow the transmission of the disease. Between February and July, there was a $54 million shortage in resources.
Yet another hindrance in containing the current outbreak is the mobility of the affected population. The practice of tracking down all people who have come into contact with an infected individual is complicated by the fact that many people live a mobile lifestyle and cross between towns and cities and over international borders daily.
Will the virus continue to spread?
While PHEIC status has been given, the DRC’s borders have not been closed to trade or migration, as doing so could potentially affect the livelihood of the larger population. However, open borders increases the risk of Ebola transmission. Three cases have been reported in neighbouring Uganda, which is home to over one million refugees – these people have limited access to healthcare, which imposes a great risk on that population.
Both Uganda and Rwanda have experienced Ebola outbreaks in the past and have health systems in place that should be stable enough to contain the spread of the virus. However, Burundi and South Sudan are thought to be at greater risk, as their health care systems are not equipped to combat outbreaks.
Kenya is also thought to be at high risk as it participates daily in economic exchanges with the DRC cities of Butembo and Beni, both epicenters of the epidemic. According to the Washington Post, close to two dozen active cases have been caught at border points since the epidemic began, and two people who came into contact with infected persons made it as far as Dubai and China before being tested for the virus.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
To date, the Church has played a major role in assisting with the current outbreak, as it did with the 2014-2016 West African epidemic. Church leaders have taken on the task of educating people on the dangers of the virus and the means of preventing infection, while also taking care of the spiritual needs of those already affected. The Catholic Church has mobilised workers in the DRC by distributing educational material and attempting to eradicate the fear of the virus, in the hope of convincing people to seek professional medical help. Bishops of dioceses in affected areas have become a major voice in the conversation of how to best curb the current epidemic by bringing forward issues regarding culture and religion. The Catholic Church has also utililised Caritas, the charitable arm of the Church, to move into communities affected by high levels of armed conflict and gang violence, with the goal of promoting peace between members of the community and health workers.
- For the spread of Ebola both within the DRC and surrounding nations to be curbed
- For the Church to continue to have a positive impact on those affected by the virus and others at risk
- For the Church to be effective agents of reconciliation and peace in conflict areas