Stopping the DRC’s Deadly Ebola Outbreak

November 21, 2018

By Yonela Kentane, Lethu Letsoalo, and Keith Martin MD

Far from the glare of the media spotlight brave public health workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are fighting a battle to contain a lethal pathogen. The Ebola virus, spread through close personal contact, has so far killed over 200 people making this the worst outbreak of the virus in the country’s history. This deadly situation is unfolding against a backdrop of chronic violence and insecurity that over the last three decades has claimed over 5 million lives. Mass murder, rape and torture meted out against civilian populations by an array of rebel groups is endemic to the region.

To their immense credit Congolese health workers have vaccinated over 27,000 people against the virus. This has been a heroic effort, but in the commission of their work a number of them have been attacked, and some, killed. This pervasive threat to health workers is a major obstacle to stopping a deadly virus that knows no borders.

In the face of these attacks the international response to quell the disease has been stunted. It is true that it is difficult to deploy healthcare workers in this environment but letting the virus spread must not be an option.

So, what are the next steps that should be taken?

First, the apathy on the part of the international community must end.

Second, the global community must support the DRC’s public health crisis response teams that have acquired the skills and technology to effectively control an outbreak of this nature.

Third, the international community must work with local police and military personnel to ensure that health professionals can safely enter communities to identify potential victims, their contacts, isolate them, treat the afflicted, and vaccinate the healthy.

When the Ebola virus infected and killed a young boy in Guinea in Dec. 2013, little attention was paid to it in the West until an infected traveler landed in Dallas, Texas on Sept. 30, 2014. Only then did stopping the virus’ spread become a priority for high income countries. During that period of inaction from the moment the first cases were recognized in West Africa, to the moment an infected airline passenger landed in the US, thousands of people died in West Africa. This was an avoidable catastrophe. Many lives could have been saved as the disease could have been contained earlier.

In response to the tragedy that affected West Africa the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) was created to prevent, detect and respond to potential disease outbreaks. But this platform that has been created is only as good as the will to support it and use it. The Ebola outbreak in the DRC is just what the GHSA was designed to respond to. The international community, in collaboration with the DRC’s public health officials, must fulfill its obligations under the GHSA and stop the spread of Ebola. If not, countless people will lose their lives including many brave health care workers struggling to provide care in extremely dangerous circumstances.

Yonela Kentane and Lethu Letsoalo are medical students from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Keith Martin MD is the Executive Director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health