Worries rise over risk of Ebola spread beyond DRC hot zones

Beni treatment center
Beni treatment center

World Bank / Vincent Tremeau/ Flickr cc

The World Health Organization's (WHO's) top official today said he was "profoundly worried" about the rising threat of Ebola spreading to other parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and to neighboring countries, as the country's health ministry today reported 23 new cases.

On Twitter, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said most operations have resumed in the wake of the most recent attacks, but the disruptions and a testing backlog will lead to a rise in the number of cases reported over the coming days.

Since the current outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri provinces began in August, several violent incidents, some with resulting community protest, have disrupted the outbreak response and triggered spikes in new cases.

"When we cannot reach people, they do not get the chance to be vaccinated or to receive treatments if they fall ill. The tragedy is that we have the technical means to stop Ebola, but until all parties halt attacks on the response, it will be very difficult to end this outbreak," Tedros said.

He also said major surge in political and financial support from all national and international groups is urgently needed to help stop the outbreak.

New probable cases added, UN official visits Butembo

In its daily update, the DRC health ministry said the 23 new cases were from 9 different locations, including 5 from Katwa and 5 from Butembo, two of the main hot spots. Also, officials added 22 more probable cases to the total, which are people in who died in the community between Jan 30 and May 8 for whom it wasn't possible to get samples but after investigations were found to have links to confirmed cases. The developments push the overall outbreak total to 1,649 cases, 1,561 confirmed and 88 probable.

Response teams are still investigating 310 suspected Ebola cases.

Nine more people died from their infections, eight of them from six different communities and one in Katwa's Ebola treatment centers. The fatalities push the death total in the outbreak to 1,105.

In other developments, the ministry said Leila Zerrougui, the United Nations secretary-general's special representative in the DRC and head of the group's DRC peacekeeping mission MONUSCO, visited response teams in Butembo today to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Butembo and surrounding areas.

She reiterated support for the response teams and urged groups to better align their intelligence to respond to challenges and build trust with communities.

Public health needs peace negotiators

Yesterday in a New England Journal of Medicine commentary on epidemic preparedness, Jeremy Farrar, MD, PhD, director of the Wellcome Trust, said armed conflicts in unstable parts can fuel disease transmission as people try to move, making safe caregiving all but impossible.

He said the northeastern DRC setting for the Ebola outbreak has been tragically unstable for 20 years, and the tragic impact of the instability became clear when the outbreak began last August.

The outbreak might be impossible to contain, as long as violence repeatedly cripples the response. "And every day the epidemic continues, the risk of a national and regional health disaster grows," Farrar warned.

New approaches are needed to resolve tensions within and between countries, local communities, armed factions, groups of health and humanitarian workers, and national and international security forces, he said.

"Peace negotiators with experience in conflict resolution are needed in public health now. Without their skills, potential pandemics will fester unchecked in vulnerable regions of the world, leading, sooner or later, to catastrophe," Farrar said, adding that Germany is in a strong position to lead efforts to stabilize global health in insecure situations, given its prioritization of preparedness issues during its G7 and G20 presidencies.

See also:

May 10 DRC update

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Twitter feed

May 9 N Engl J Med commentary

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