Since 1976 the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced nine outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus. Despite the announcement that the outbreak is over, a number risks remain and health experts are already planning how to beat the next outbreak.
Health workers are now looking at innovative ways a new outbreak can be prevented.
Emanuele Capobianco, Head of Health at the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said:
“It’s likely that we’ll be having a 10th outbreak.”
“The issues that contributed to this outbreak – poor infrastructure, weak health and sanitation systems – are still with us.”
The more recent outbreak began in May and is believed to have caused 33 deaths.
Ebola is thought to spread long distances through bats, and causes haemorrhagic fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the virus kills half of those infected and is passed on through bodily fluids.
It is often transmitted to humans through infected bush meat.
During the period from 2014 to 2016 in West Africa, over 28,600 people were infected and over 11,000 people died due to Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and, Liberia.
Unlike the previous Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the latest outbreak effected four locations, including a large city connected to the capital and neighbouring countries. The latest outbreak rose fears of escalation.
For the first time, however, the global health community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was able to deploy vaccines to limit its spread.
The vaccine was developed by Merck and deployed by the World Health Organisation. Over 3,300 people were vaccinated and no new virus cases were reported, the vaccine was hailed by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a significant turning point for the outbreak.
The IFRC have praised the drug’s effectiveness emphasised its importance in fighting future outbreaks.
However, there is still a large amount of misinformation around vaccines, for example there is a common belief that they can cause sterilisation. Educating communities and disproving myths will be critical to controlling future outbreaks.
A key strategy to controlling outbreaks is communication and collaboration between local groups.
Elhadj As Sy noted:
“As international teams pack up and leave, these local responders will remain.”
A number of local figures, such as religious leaders, chiefs and pygmy groups have been trained in how to stop the virus so that once the health workers leave protection measures remain in place.
Rapid diagnosis of Ebola is essential to its containment but is also difficult to achieve. Phones may offer an innovative way to overcome this challenge and can be used to report suspected cases in real time, identify locations, and allow analysts to map outbreaks.
The Red Cross is also developing mobile data collection applications to support response and recovery efforts.
In Tanzania, a new app lets locals to record symptoms of suspicious diseases such as Ebola and cholera on their phones. The data allows experts to diagnose faster and alert the authorities to potential outbreaks.
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Image credit: UNICEF