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WHO Declares the Ebola Outbreak in Congo a Public Health Emergency

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a “public health emergency of international concern” on Wednesday, July 17. This comes a year after the first suspected cases were accounted for in the country. Since then, over 1,600 people have died out of the more than 2,500 people who have been infected with the disease.

The outbreak was officially labeled as an outbreak on the first of August in 2018. A case of Ebola was confirmed in the city of Goma on July 14, which pushed for the declaration of emergency. A pastor traveled to the city of two million people while sick. Previously, the WHO had been unwilling to advise the United Nations to make such an announcement.

“A year into the epidemic, it’s still not under control, and we are not where we should be. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders.

The Democratic of Congo is not inexperienced when it comes to Ebola. There have been 10 outbreaks since 1976. In 1976, there were 318 reported cases with 280 confirmed deaths. Every outbreak preceding the current ongoing one has had less than 320 reported cases of Ebola.

The fear in the Congo is that the disease will be spread in the large city of Goma. Sixty people are known who were in contact with the priest while he was sick. WHO staff and CDC experts have been and are working on-site in the Democratic Republic of Congo and are trying to do all they can to prevent the spread of the disease and treat those already afflicted.

In some places in Africa, including Sierra Leone, some burial rituals have increased the spread of Ebola. In the traditional Kissi culture, a woman cannot be buried with her fetus or it is said to mess with the world’s natural cycles. The procedure puts those in contact with the infected body at a high risk of contracting Ebola. It has proved difficult for medical professionals to balance science with culture and be sensitive to the rituals of the native people.

The problem with Ebola is that it cannot be eradicated. The pathogen is not confined to humans, so it continues to spread. While scientists are not certain, it is believed that Ebola is animal-borne and spreads to humans from fruit bats. Once a person has contracted the disease, he/she can spread it to others through the direct contact of bodily fluids. This can still occur if the infected person has died. Some symptoms of Ebola include fever, severe headache, unexplained hemorrhage, diarrhea and fatigue.

Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for Ebola. There is an experimental vaccine that has been tested by the WHO. The vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV, has been very successful so far and is awaiting FDA licensure. The treatment, though, for now, consists of oxygen therapy, providing fluids and medication for controlling blood pressure and other symptoms.

With the WHO declaring the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo a public health emergency, it is hoped that the disease will be contained and further outbreaks will be avoided.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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