New Ebola outbreak in Congo raises alarm

New Ebola outbreak in Congo raises alarm
© The World Health Organization/Junior D. Kannah

A new outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus has infected 100 people in a western province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a rapid spread that has health officials concerned about the chances of an uncontrolled epidemic.

The outbreak in Equateur Province began in early June, when a cluster of cases were discovered in the provincial capital Mbandaka. The number of cases has doubled in just the last five weeks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said 43 people have died.

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Equateur Province is a remote area north and east of Kinshasa, connected to the capital by the Congo River. The outbreak has spread to 11 health zones, the WHO said, with cases spread across about 180 miles of jungle, making impacted villages difficult to reach.

The WHO has committed about $2.3 million to the battle against Ebola, and Congo’s health ministry has said it will need $40 million to control the outbreak. But the world is consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, and international partners have not committed the funding necessary to stop Ebola.

“The virus is spreading across a wide and rugged terrain which requires costly interventions, and with Covid-19 draining resources and attention, it is hard to scale up operations,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa regional director. 

This is the second major Ebola outbreak in Equateur Province in the last two years. A previous outbreak that began in May 2018 was contained in just three months, after 54 people were infected and 33 died.

The latest outbreak came just as Congo ended its worst Ebola epidemic ever recorded, in eastern North Kivu and Ituri provinces. That incident, unconnected to the current conflagration, lasted for almost two years and killed more than 2,200 people.

The current outbreak is concerning because of Mbandaka’s position as a significant port on the Congo River. River traffic connects Equateur Province to Kinshasa, population 12 million, and Brazzaville, capital of the neighboring Republic of the Congo and home of about 2 million people. 

If the virus reaches either city, it could lead to an urban outbreak that would represent a greater challenge to contain than even the West Africa outbreak in 2014-2015 that killed more than 11,300 people.

“Covid-19 is not the only emergency needing robust support,” Moeti said in a statement. “As we know from our recent history, we ignore Ebola at our peril.”