11 May 2018

Africa: Ebola Outbreak in DRC - Are We Better Prepared This Time?

Photo: WHO
Responding to the DR Congo's latest Ebola outbreak.
analysis

Two cases of Ebola virus disease have been confirmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), just one year after the country declared its last outbreak to be over.

The outbreak is in the market town of Bikoro in the north-west of the country. So far, 21 people have been reported to have hemorrhagic fever - a symptom of Ebola - of whom 17 have died. The two cases that were confirmed by a laboratory to be Ebola, were shown to be the Zaire strain of the virus. Healthcare workers are among those reported to be infected.

Fortunately, the DRC has a good track record of controlling Ebola outbreaks, and the government is working closely with the World Health Organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) to bring the situation under control.

It is almost certain that we won't see a repeat of the 2014-16 West African epidemic that claimed 11,000 lives, but healthcare experts needs to act swiftly, nonetheless.

Still no licenced treatment

Ebola viruses are a group of particularly nasty viruses that have a significant burden across Africa. Humans usually get infected from eating and preparing bush meat - mainly deer and monkey - and once they are infected, they can easily pass on the infection to other people.

Ebola viruses probably spread in bats most of the time, but they do occasionally "jump" to other species such as deer, monkeys or humans. We don't know what causes these species jumps, which makes predicting Ebola outbreaks almost impossible.

In bats, Ebola probably doesn't cause much disease, but when it spreads to humans and other apes, Ebola can cause a very serious fever with a high chance of death. However, the disease is not as gruesome as has sometimes been reported (body organs don't liquiefy), which makes it difficult to figure out what's Ebola and what's not. Ebola infection could look like malaria or typhoid fever, for example.

If you don't die from Ebola, you might suffer from long-term disability and stand the risk of being persistently infected with a chance of the disease reoccurring years later. Unfortunately, there are no approved drugs to treat Ebola, although a vaccine has been tested in humans with some success.

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