The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is struggling to contain a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in its eastern region — just weeks after declaring the end of a previous outbreak in another part of the country.
The new outbreak is centred around the city of Mangina in North Kivu. The World Health Organisation has reported 78 probable cases of Ebola, including 44 deaths, in an area with a population of around 1-million people. An estimated 1 500 people have been identified as contacts of people infected with the disease.
The virus — first detected in the mid-1970s in then Zaire, now the DRC — causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhoea. Spread through contact with the blood and bodily fluids of infected people or animals, it is one of the world’s deadliest viruses, killing up to 90% of those infected. The disease has an incubation period of up to 21 days, meaning it can take as long as three weeks for an infected person to show symptoms.
The ongoing conflict in eastern DRC makes containing this latest outbreak a challenge unlike any seen before.
More than 100 rebel groups operate in North Kivu and neighbouring Ituri province. North Kivu is situated on the border of Uganda and is home to about 8-million people, including as many as a million internally displaced people who live in refugee camps. Beni, the region’s largest city has been the target of bombings attributed to Islamic militants from across the border.
Military action against the rebel groups is underway with the help of UN peacekeepers as the region around Beni has in the past been the site of fighting, civilian massacres and abductions.
Oicha, a village 45 kilometres to the north of Beni, is considered the frontline between the army and rebels. Much of its population has fled and Ebola has been confirmed there. Without a UN troop escort, medical professionals cannot access the area, further straining medical relief efforts to track, monitor and contain the disease.
Two weeks ago, the health ministry declared another outbreak in the DRC’s Equateur province had been contained, after a vaccine was trialled there. Doctors, nurses and patients’ families received the vaccine.
The new outbreak in North Kivu — which appears to have blindsided health officials — is already significantly worse than the one that hit Equateur earlier this year, which killed 33 people.