The world has been facing a number of health crises in 2020, and 2021 is, unfortunately, no different.
This year, the World Health Organization is reporting new cases of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What’s more, this time the epidemic is happening in a different region of the Congo—one even closer to potentially higher risk nations and areas. While the size of this outbreak pales in comparison to past Ebola outbreaks, it is still a concerning development. But what exactly is Ebola and what needs to be done to ensure the world remains safe? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Ebola?
The Ebola virus, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever (or just Ebola for short) is an emerging serious, acute and contagious viral disease. It’s a rare condition, most often seen in rural parts of Central and West Africa, and can be spread from one person to another through close contact of bodily fluids, such as saliva, mucus, vomit, sweat, tears and blood. Symptoms of Ebola can be incredibly severe, include fever, weakness, muscle pain, fatigue and sore throat. Severe cases can cause uncontrollable bleeding, organ failure and even death if left untreated.
What Is Happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was the focus of the world’s attention in 2018, when the northeast region of the country made headlines with the world’s second-worst Ebola outbreak in modern times. While the outbreak was eventually brought under control—a huge success story for the country and its health workers—it was far-reaching, leading to more than 3,500 deaths.
Unfortunately, the disease appears to have returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2021. As of early March 2021, the World Health Organization reported that at least 56 people have died from the virus and an additional 211 confirmed cases. The new outbreak started in the western region of the country, not far from the Kivu province, which was the site of the 2018 outbreak. This area also borders Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan, which further raises risks of international spread.
Reasons for the New Outbreak
Health care workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are currently working to understand why this outbreak is happening. While it is likely linked to the 2018 outbreak that afflicted Kivu, there are also other contributing factors that have likely exacerbated the situation. For example, a lack of awareness in regards to symptoms or the virus itself, coupled with poor health infrastructure in the country, may have helped fuel the spread of the disease.
Furthermore, the underlying humanitarian crisis in the region appears to be playing a role; thousands of people living in refugee camps in the region could be at increased risk for exposure to the disease. With so many people living together in close quarters and facing high rates of poverty, poor food security and other health issues, the risk of an outbreak is far from surprising.
The International Response
Although much of the attention is on the United States’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the international response to the new Ebola outbreak has been swift and comprehensive. The World Health Organization, United Nations and other international partners have joined forces to provide economic assistance, medical supplies and expertise to combat the disease.
Most importantly, the international community has recognized the importance of collaboration and pooling resources to ensure that the outbreak is contained as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Nations that border the Democratic Republic of Congo have been urged to step up their health efforts, while WHO has been leading a program that uses both traditional and digital surveillance methods to determine who is at most risk.
Best Practices for Prevention and Treatment
In order to protect the public health, the World Health Organization has outlined a number of best practices for both prevention and treatment of the Ebola virus. The following lists several of their key points:
• Educate yourself and the community about the disease and potential exposures
• Avoid contact with anyone who has or is suspected of having Ebola
• Wear protective clothing and masks when coming into contact with potential patients
• Thoroughly wash your hands often, especially after coming into contact with potentially contaminated items or people
• Immediately seek medical care if you suspect any exposure
• Monitor the patient’s symptoms carefully and give timely supportive care
• Monitor blood tests regularly and start the proper treatments
• Begin contact tracing and assess possible exposures
• Administer antibiotics to treat secondary infections
• Administer antiviral medications when available
The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is unfortunately a devastating, yet expected development; the area is still plagued by poverty and poor health infrastructure, two major risk factors for disease outbreaks. However, the international community is currently stepping up its efforts to contain this new outbreak—and the best practices suggested by the World Health Organization are essential in order to prevent further transmission and save lives. While this is still a very serious situation, proactive measures have the potential to ensure the world remains safe.