The World Health Organization is not considering Ebola in the Congo a ‘global emergency’ at this time, but the likelihood is high the disease will spread to neighboring countries.
Although the Ebola virus is once again breaking out in the African Democratic Republic of Congo, World Health officials have stated they do not deem the outbreak an international health emergency.
Nonetheless, health officials are concerned over the new outbreak and possible spread of the disease in the Congo’s North Kivu province, which borders both Rwanda and Uganda. So far, nearly 150 people have died and more than 200 cases have been reported since the outbreak in August.
This is a region of the world that has continued fighting between armed militias and government forces, and those battles make it all the more difficult to contain and combat the disease. Not only do medical workers have to fight the infectious and lethal Ebola, but they also have to worry about armed conflicts.
Nine African Countries at Risk of Ebola Infection
The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement in September, raising the likelihood to “very high” that the Ebola virus will spread from the Congo to its neighboring border countries. In all, the WHO says nine African countries are at high risk of infection and cited armed conflict and lax border security as reasons why the disease might spread.
There is a direct link between the armed conflicts and new outbreaks. In Beni, a city in northeastern Congo, there have been eight major fighting incidents in the past eight weeks. There have also been 35 new cases of Ebola during that same time. The skirmishes disrupt health workers’ ability to vaccinate and treat people, so the disease spreads rapidly.
Health workers also have to deal with cultural and community resistance. Dead Ebola victims must be safely buried to keep the disease at bay, but there is local resistance to international burial teams. The Congo community feels that these teams interfere with their traditional burial customs. Health teams from the Red Cross and other organizations have been pelted by rocks and otherwise attacked as they try to properly bury victims. Some health workers have been seriously injured, and agencies often have to suspend their work in the area due to the violence.
Even with the seriousness of the Congo situation, WHO was quick to point out that the outbreak is not yet at the proportions of a global outbreak. WHO spokesman Dr. Robert Steffen assured reporters that international cooperation is in place to ensure the virus does not spread further. Steffen said the team is confident they can bring the virus under control in a reasonable amount of time.
Ebola Global Epidemic Label on Hold
WHO says that prematurely declaring a global epidemic can have far-reaching implications. Some countries impose travel restrictions, while others cut off international trade, thus affecting the ability of certain countries to get the supplies and people they need to fight the epidemic in their region. The WHO has already lobbied the United Nations Security Council to provide more peacekeeping troops, so they don’t want to do anything to curtail those efforts. In short, a declaration of this nature can make the entire situation more dangerous, so WHO proceeds with great caution in these instances.
The WHO focuses on epidemic data to make their decisions regarding the declaration of a global epidemic. They are focused on the large number of new illnesses in the Congo but say these new outbreaks have no link to people who are already infected with Ebola.
Ebola has been an issue in the Congo for decades. Scientists discovered the disease in 1976, prompting development and widespread use of the Ebola vaccine. Since then, there have been 10 outbreaks in the Congo.
The vaccine is being widely used for the most recent outbreak as well. Since August health officials have vaccinated nearly 20,000 people, which has definitely helped to slow the progression of the disease in the region.
The WHO has developed a new vaccination strategy. Not only is the organization vaccinating health workers, but WHO is using a technique called ring vaccination, meaning that all contacts of every known infected person receive vaccinations.