After more than a year of battling an Ebola virus outbreak that killed more than 2,200 people, UN officials are "cautiously optimistic" that the epidemic in the northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will soon be history as the country gears up to face the emerging threat of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
In an emotional ceremony on Tuesday, the last Ebola patient in the DRC - a woman called Masiko - was discharged from the treatment centre in Beni, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported.
"There are currently zero cases of #Ebola in #DRC after over a year of fighting this outbreak", WHO Regional Director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said in Tweet sharing a video of Masiko leaving the facility to the cheers of a waiting crowd.
"So proud of all involved in the response. We are hopeful, yet cautiously optimistic that we will soon bring this outbreak to an end".
The milestone comes as countries increasingly report cases of respiratory disease caused by a new strain of the coronavirus, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. To date, more than 60 additional countries have been affected.
Africa prepares for COVID-19
Following the virus's spread to the continent, the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention organized an emergency ministerial meeting last month where the DRC was identified among 13 countries most at risk of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) due to their direct travel links with China.
"Some countries in Africa, including DRC, are leveraging the capacity they have built up to test for Ebola, to test for COVID-19", WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the meeting. "This is a great example of how investing in health systems can pay dividends for health security."
WHO's Africa office this week held an emergency partnership meeting on coronavirus , aimed at boosting engagement and developing an effective preparedness and response plan for countries in the region.
Organizations in attendance included fellow UN agency the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which believes that compared to countries with little experience in large-scale infection prevention and control, the DRC may be better positioned to prevent the spread of the coronavirus because of the Ebola measures already implemented.
Lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak
UNFPA health workers have been supporting Ebola response in the DRC: the tenth such outbreak in the country's history. It has occurred against the backdrop of one of the world's most protracted crises and in a region of the country that has been scarred by deadly armed group attacks. Overall, nearly 16 million Congolese citizens require support, including 3.5 million women and girls of reproductive age: that is between 15-49 years old.
While all people living in affected areas are at risk of contracting Ebola, UNFPA explained that health workers face increased risk due to frequent contact with infected persons, their biological fluids and contaminated objects. They also risk spreading the disease to other patients and practitioners during care. More than five per cent of Ebola victims in DRC were health workers who contracted the disease through contact with an infected patient's bodily fluids, according to the agency.
Midwife Rachelle Mbavindi was infected with Ebola while working in the Mangina Referral Health Centre, which was renovated by UNFPA. Located in North Kivu province, it is at the epicentre of the humanitarian crisis and Ebola outbreak.
Rachelle and nine colleagues spent 90 days in quarantine and treatment after contracting the disease. Despite the difficulty of her experience, Rachelle returned to work following her release.
"After my experience with Ebola, I felt born again," she said, "and I carry out my work with great caution and attention."
UNFPA expanding interventions
As a midwifery supervisor, Rachelle trains her colleagues in the proper implementation of practices that can make the difference between life and death in the prevention of fatal diseases. These steps include proper hand hygiene, face protection and clothing, prevention of injuries causing open wounds, respiratory hygiene: that is, preventing viral spread through coughing, systematic cleaning of rooms and linens, and appropriate management of biological wastes.
Rachelle is applying her personal and professional experience with Ebola to prepare for the potential spread of coronavirus.
"Thanks to the Ebola training provided by UNFPA, I feel reassured that my maternity ward can prevent and control a new epidemic, including the coronavirus", she said.
"In addition to the training and related supervision, UNFPA provides maternity wards with essential equipment to ensure full implementation of the infection prevention and control measures", said Dr. Polycarpe Takou, UNFPA humanitarian coordinator for Ebola response.
UNFPA regional and country offices are now working to expand such interventions in preparation for the potential spread of COVID-19.