While new measures to tackle the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are working, the epidemic remains dangerous and unpredictable, the United Nations said on Thursday.
In a joint mission to the epicentre of the outbreak, around the city of Beni close to the Ugandan border, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix, spent Wednesday seeing conditions on the ground for themselves, along with Minister of Health Oly Ilunga Kalenga. They met local officials, health workers, civil society leaders, and peacekeepers.
Since the outbreak began in August, there have been 308 cases and 191 deaths, about half of which have been in Beni, which has a population of around 800,000.
Although some attacks have continued in surrounding villages, the UN Stabilization Mission there, MONUSCO, has taken an active approach in recent weeks to quell armed group activity in the North Kivu area, and protect Beni from conflict.
"While this has contributed to a decline in new cases over the past two weeks, the situation remains of grave concern," said WHO in a press statement.Under the leadership of the Ministry of Health, WHO and partners are using community surveillance in areas which are difficult for outsiders to navigate, allowing workers to trace the contacts of anyone who has been infected.
"We are facing numerous complex challenges, but it's encouraging and inspiring to see that our efforts to deliver as one UN, have been extremely successful in many hotspots and will help to end the outbreak and save lives," said Mr. Lacroix.
The current epidemic, the country's tenth, is on track to surpass the previous largest outbreak in 1976, which saw 318 cases in total, leading to 280 deaths.
Since the outbreak began, MONUSCO has assisted in the Ebola response by providing logistical support, office facilities, transportation, communication and with keeping staff safe, from security threats.
After decades of conflict, Ebola response teams have faced misinformation and mistrust from some local populations who are reluctant to allow vaccination programmes or follow rules for contact tracing and safe burials.
"The fact that we have so far prevented Ebola from spreading into neighbouring countries is a testament to the hard work and determination of staff from all partners," said the WHO chief. "As complex and challenging as this outbreak is, I am confident that working together with the Ministry of Health, MONUSCO and all our partners, we can and will end it."
WHO has around 280 staff in North Kivu, supporting hundreds from the Ministry of Health and partners. Patients are being treated in six newly-build centres that are operated by the Ministry of Health and partners. Each is supported by a mobile laboratory to rapidly diagnose cases and guide treatment.
"To date, 27,000 people have been vaccinated against Ebola, and almost every new patient receives one of four investigational treatments, something which was never previously possible during an Ebola outbreak," said WHO. The agency noted that despite the loss of life, 91 people have recovered and returned to their communities thanks to the hard work and joint efforts of national and international responders.
Both UN officials paid tribute to the dedicated staff of WHO, MONUSCO, the Ministry of Health and all partners who are fighting a dangerous outbreak in extremely difficult conditions.