Since the start of the epidemic, between 4 April and 21 May, 58 people have displayed symptoms of haemorrhagic fever, of which 28 cases have been confirmed as Ebola. Twenty-seven people have died. So far, a total of 628 people may have come into contact with the known cases, and are currently under surveillance.
“This is the ninth Ebola outbreak in Congo in the last 40 years. So far, all of them have occurred in remote and isolated areas, as was the case last year in Likati, when the epidemic didn’t spread,” explains Paul Delaunois, General Director of MSF Luxembourg. “With these new cases in Mbandaka, the development of the epidemic has become much more worrying, since the disease is now affecting an urban area with over one million inhabitants, which is also one of the Congo River’s main ports.”
It is important to remember that one of Ebola’s key characteristics is its potentially very high fatality rates. During certain Ebola epidemics, up to 90% of the people who contract the haemorrhagic fever may die, especially given that the specific treatments and vaccines tested during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa are still in the development stage.
To tackle the epidemic and limit as much as possible the risk of it spreading, MSF is stepping up its response in the affected areas of Mbandaka and Bikoro. MSF emergency teams are already on site and have set up an isolation zone in Mbandaka’s main hospital (five beds) and one in Bikoro hospital (10 beds). Teams are also setting up two Ebola Management Centres (EMCs) with 20 beds each. Last week, 50 tonnes of equipment were sent to Mbandaka, including medical kits, protection and sterilisation kits, logistics and hygiene kits, and palliative medicine. Among the MSF staff on the ground are some of the organisation’s most experienced Ebola field workers.
“It is paramount that we locate the suspected cases in order to have a clearer view on how the disease reached the city of Mbandaka and the other affected areas. Efforts to improve monitoring and analysis of people who have come into contact with sufferers are essential to avoiding the spread of the epidemic.” In order to do this, “we are working closely with the Ministry of Health and other organisations on the ground to implement a coordinated, tailored and rapid response to stop the spread of Ebola,” Delaunois adds.
MSF and its epidemiology research centre (Epicentre) are also working closely with the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to set up an initial round of Ebola vaccinations using an experimental vaccine (rVSVDG-ZEBOV-GP) as an additional measure to control the outbreak.
But in order for it to be effective, the epidemic response operation must ensure that all the core measures for an Ebola intervention are put in place, namely the early treatment and isolation of people who are sick, monitoring the epidemic to identify new cases or new transmission zones, tracing and monitoring people who have come into contact with Ebola, educating communities about the disease, implementing stringent policies for the protection of health organisations and personnel, and encouraging the observation of safety rules which require temporarily changing cultural norms during funerals (as during a burial, the deceased person may transmit the virus to the mourners if they come into direct contact with them).
“The Ebola outbreak which struck West Africa in 2014-2015 taught us a valuable lesson. In order to successfully contain an epidemic, we must remain vigilant throughout and ensure that all necessary measures are taken. Overlooking one could have disastrous consequences as, if contracted, Ebola is still one of the deadliest diseases in the world,” concludes Delaunois.
MSF teams were immediately mobilised to prevent this epidemic.
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Header photo: MSF teams are preparing in the isolation ward of Mbandaka hospital. © Louise Annaud/MSF