Congo's Ebola outbreak marks grim milestone as death toll surpasses 2,000

Congo's Ebola outbreak marks grim milestone as death toll surpasses 2,000
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An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in several provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed more than 2,000 lives, the country's government said Friday, a grim milestone that underscores just how far health authorities are from stopping the year-old epidemic.

The Congolese government said it had identified 3,004 confirmed and probable cases of the virus, and 2,006 people had died. The actual numbers are likely far higher, as families hide their sick to escape stigma.

The outbreak is the largest in Congo's history, and the second largest in modern times, after an outbreak in three West African nations earlier this decade that killed more than 11,300 people. The number of cases in the current outbreak are three times as high as the total number of Ebola cases ever identified in nine previous outbreaks in Congo, dating back to 1976.

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And despite a vaccine that has reached more than 207,000 people and two promising treatments for those who have contracted the virus, the mortality rate in the current outbreak — more than 67 percent — is far higher than the outbreak in West Africa.

"We have now lost more than 2,000 women, men, and children to the Ebola epidemic, and we are still in the race of our lives to stop the spread of the disease," said Whitney Elmer, who oversees the Ebola response team for the nongovernmental organization Mercy Corps.

Public health officials are worried by the geographic spread of the virus. Several cases have been identified in recent days in a community in South Kivu, the third Congolese province where the virus has appeared. In that case, a family had contracted the virus in Beni, the epicenter of the outbreak in North Kivu, and traveled about 275 miles south to their home.

On Thursday, Ugandan officials reported a new case of Ebola in the Kasese district. In that case, a 9-year-old girl crossed the border with her mother to seek treatment. The Ugandan health ministry said the girl was being cared for at an isolation center in the town of Bwera.

"We need to reflect on those stark numbers. We need to change this. We need to change the direction of the outbreak," said Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) health emergencies program.

One rare positive note has come from Goma, the regional capital and home of more than 2 million people living along the Rwandan border. Three confirmed cases of the Ebola virus had been identified in Goma, but no new cases have been identified in the last 21 days, the virus's typical incubation period.

The two Congolese provinces that have suffered the brunt of the virus have presented perhaps the most complex challenge in fighting a viral outbreak in modern history. North Kivu and Ituri provinces have been wracked by ethnic violence for decades; dozens of armed militant groups operate freely in the region, and the WHO has documented more than 200 attacks against health care workers and facilities.

The WHO, which has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars responding to the current outbreak, asked partner countries to contribute more to the fight.

"Everyone has a role to play and we each must be accountable for what we signed up to do, only then will we end this outbreak," said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will travel to the region this weekend in a show of support.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it would have 30 staffers on the ground aiding the response. Most American responders have been confined to Goma and neighboring countries like Uganda because of the security situation in North Kivu and Ituri. The State Department has blocked staffers with the CDC and U.S. Agency for International Development from traveling to regions it deems too dangerous.

"CDC is prepared for a long-term public health response in DRC and its neighboring countries, and we agree with our World Health Organization colleagues about the need for a change in the response to bring this outbreak to an end," CDC Director Robert Redfield said Thursday.