The Democratic Republic of Congo’s health ministry reported a fresh cluster of Ebola infections in the country’s northwest
The Congolese city of Mbandaka suffered from an Ebola outbreak in 2018.
The Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday reported a fresh cluster of Ebola infections in the country’s northwest, exacerbating a health emergency that already includes another lingering outbreak of the virus and rising cases of Covid-19.
Five people have died from Ebola and four others are being treated for the virus in Mbandaka, a city of around one million that sits on the Congo River, said Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, which has an office there.
Officials have yet to confirm whether the cases are related to an outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever in Eastern Congo, more than 1,000 miles from Mbandaka. But the city was at the center of an earlier Ebola outbreak in May 2018, suggesting that the cases there may be the result of a new instance of animal-to-human transmission of the virus. Humans can get Ebola by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of an infected animal.
“This is a reminder that Covid-19 is not the only health threat people face,” said Tedros Adhanom, the World Health Organization’s director-general.
The outbreak in Mbandaka is a setback for Congolese and international health workers, who have been trying since August 2018 to stem an Ebola outbreak in the country’s restive east. That outbreak has killed at least 2,280 people and infected more than 3,400.
Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries, is battling to keep the coronavirus at bay. It has 3,195 confirmed cases, including 72 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s global tally, although testing has been limited. Since last year, Congo has also recorded 369,520 cases of measles, including 6,779 that were fatal.
Health officials are particularly concerned about the new Ebola cases in Mbandaka, because the city is a hub for travel to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa—a metropolis of some 12 million—as well as neighboring countries. The city is just miles from Congo’s border with the Republic of Congo. Residents also travel to the war-torn Central African Republic, whose health system is even weaker than that of the DRC.
Mr. Longondo said that his ministry was dispatching doses of a new Ebola vaccine to Mbandaka and that local authorities know how to respond to the virus thanks to the 2018 outbreak. During that outbreak, 33 people died and 21 recovered while fears that the virus would spread to other parts of the country or abroad didn’t come to pass.
Since then, researchers and health workers have made great progress in fighting Ebola, which has on average killed two-thirds of those infected. A vaccine developed by Merck & Co., which was tested during the earlier Mbandaka Ebola outbreak, has been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and a second one, by Johnson & Johnson, is nearing approval in Europe.
In addition, two experimental treatments have been shown to significantly reduce the death rate among Ebola patients. Among the patients who got one of the two drugs in a trial conducted during the outbreak in Eastern Congo last year, nearly two-thirds survived. Of those who sought treatment soon after developing symptoms, even fewer died.
Despite these advancements, medical workers, including from the World Health Organization and nonprofits such as Doctors Without Borders, have struggled to contain the outbreak in Eastern Congo, a mineral-rich region tormented by dozens of militias. Health workers and burial teams have been attacked by rebels and many locals have questioned whether the virus is real.
In April, the WHO was days away from declaring the outbreak over, only to discover a fresh cluster in the town of Beni. A new 42-day countdown to declare the end of an outbreak—the length of two incubation periods since the last confirmed patient—started on May 14.