Friday October 18, 2019

Ending Ebola Epidemic in Congo Fraught with Security Risks, Says WHO

U.N. health agency reports security incidents in eastern DRC have increased dramatically in the past few months

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FILE - Health workers prepare to bury a coffin containing a victim of the ebola virus on May 16, 2019 in Butembo, DRC. VOA

The World Health Organization says success in ending the Ebola epidemic in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo hinges upon improving security in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. The region has been engulfed in conflict for many years, and many locals do not trust outsiders, even the ones trying to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

The U.N. health agency reports security incidents in eastern DRC have increased dramatically in the past few months. So far this year, it reports 174 attacks by armed groups in North Kivu on health care facilities, workers and patients. These include five deaths and 51 injuries.

In mid-April, Cameroonian Dr. Richard Mouzoko was shot and killed while working in a hospital in Butembo, North Kivu. This incident was seen as a big setback to the Ebola operation. This past Saturday, villagers killed a health worker in the health sector of Mabalako.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, says health workers are being intimidated and threatened by armed men and live in fear, not knowing when the next violent attack may occur. She says this insecurity is leading to a lack of access and driving the increase in cases.

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Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) prepare to escort health workers attached to ebola response programs on May 18, 2019 in Butembo, north of Kivu. VOA

“When the response cannot reach people,” she said, “they do not get the chance to be vaccinated or to receive life-saving treatment if they do fall ill.

“The technical means to stop this Ebola outbreak are available,” she added. “But without access or a secure operating environment, they cannot be deployed optimally and effectively enough. …This is why the response is one of the most complex health emergencies the world has faced.”

The latest WHO figures show 1,920 Ebola cases in the region, including 1,281 deaths. A new structure for coordinating and strengthening the Ebola response was presented at the World Health Assembly this week.

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FILE – Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) attends a news conference on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 3, 2019. VOA

WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Michael Ryan says key partners will have to scale up their operations and take charge of crucial aspects of the new strategy.

“We believe the work on security, the work on non-humanitarian interventions and the work on sustainable financing are the things that need to happen to provide the environment in which public health operations can continue to progress and be successful,” he said.

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However, he warns if there are further large-scale security incidents than all bets are off. He says the likely impact of this ongoing instability will have on the Ebola emergency operation is unpredictable, but worrisome. (VOA)

Next Story

Uganda Begins Largest-Ever Ebola Vaccine Trial to Prevent Disease from Speading

An epidemic across the border in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has killed over 1,800 people

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FILE - Ugandan health workers speak to civilians before carrying out the first vaccination exercise against the Ebola virus in Kirembo village, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kasese district, Uganda, June 16, 2019. VOA

Uganda has started its largest Ebola vaccine trial to date, health authorities announced Monday, in an apparent effort to prevent the disease from spreading. An epidemic across the border in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has killed over 1,800 people, making this outbreak the second-deadliest to date, with fatality rates nearing 70%.

The experimental Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be administered to health care professionals, as well as ambulance drivers, burial teams and cleaners. The trial is expected to last two years and cover 800 people in the Mbarara district in southwest Uganda.

Vaccinations have already begun, according to Uganda’s Medical Research Council. There are no licensed treatments for Ebola, but one vaccine, manufactured by Merck, was used effectively at the end of the 2013-2016 outbreak in the DRC and has been used during the current epidemic. Over 180,000 people have received this vaccine.

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As the Ebola epidemic in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo enters its second year, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are voicing concern. Pixabay

But the supply is sporadic, and vaccine administrators are typically 1,000 doses short of what they need, according to Doctors Without Borders as reported by Bloomberg News. Health professionals have called for the use of both the Johnson and Merck vaccines to maximize the number of people protected from Ebola.

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Some people, including the DRC’s former health minister, opposed the move, arguing that another vaccine with a different administration schedule would stoke vaccine distrust in vulnerable areas. While the Merck vaccine is administered through one shot and takes 10 days to be effective, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires two shots, two months apart.

Aside from sparking anti-vaccine fear, the Johnson & Johnson drug could be difficult to administer in practice, as violence in northeastern DRC hampers disease-control efforts. Neighboring countries have been on high alert since three people died of Ebola in the DRC city of Goma, located on the border with Rwanda and just a few hours from Uganda. (VOA)