Medical workers have lots of experience dealing with Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The current one in North Kivu province is the country’s 10th. Fortunately, they have new tools to fight the deadly virus. A new vaccine has shown it can protect people who’ve come into contact with Ebola victims, and more people have learned techniques to keep the virus from spreading.
But, new problems emerge and old problems persist with every outbreak. Some people still refuse to believe Ebola exists and have hidden infected family members. Traditional burial practices put people at risk. And the location of the current outbreak is a conflict zone with about 100 active armed groups, creating security risks for health workers.
As of Sept. 12, 92 people have died from Ebola in the North Kivu outbreak, according to the World Health Organization.
Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director general in charge of emergencies, says North Kivu’s location poses a huge challenge. The province borders Uganda and Rwanda, and thousands of people cross the border for business or personal reasons each day.
“We hear that some of the cross-border sites such as Kasindi see up to 10- to 20,000 people crossing in either direction every day,” he says. “So it’s an enormous, as you can imagine, exercise to screen that level of population movement across the border.”
“Fortunately, we’ve had no confirmed cases in surrounding countries,” he adds. He believes that is a sign that surveillance methods at the border, which include temperature checks, are working.
He also says the lessons from the 2014-15 West Africa Ebola outbreak, which killed 11,000 people, have been used to good effect during the three separate outbreaks in Congo this year.
“What we’re seeing is certainly a paradigm shift in the way we are confronting Ebola outbreaks,” he said. “In the past, you know, we had very little to offer communities other than to isolate sick people and to give information to communities and to (recommend) hygiene and handwashing and of course to trace very carefully the contacts.”
“Now, we have a much more optimistic message that I think is giving people a lot of hope, which is to say that we can protect your family members, your caregivers, your health care workers, your neighbors with vaccines so they don’t have to become infected.”
“And if you are unfortunate enough to contract Ebola, you have the option of coming to an Ebola treatment unit and getting more than just rehydration and supportive treatment, but actually the kind of sophisticated medications that you would benefit from in a Western country.”