DRC: Country's worst Ebola epidemic continues to spread

A health worker is seen putting on his personal protective equipment (PPE) before entering the red zone of an MSF-supported Ebola Treatment Center (ETC) in Butembo.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO 2018 © John Wessels
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NEW YORK, DECEMBER 3, 2018—Ebola has reached the city of Butembo and a number of more isolated areas that are difficult to access as the epidemic continues to spread through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu province. Teams from the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are expanding work in the affected region to help bring the Ebola epidemic under control.

This is DRC’s tenth outbreak and the most serious in that country since the virus was discovered in 1976. During the current outbreak, there have been a total of 440 cases (392 confirmed and 48 probable) and more than 200 confirmed deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The newest locations to be affected by this Ebola epidemic are the city of Butembo, as well as Kalunguta, approximately 15 miles to the north, and Katwa, more than 18 miles to the east. These places have all seen an increase in confirmed cases of Ebola, as well as some resistance from the community that complicates the response. It is difficult for teams working in these areas to help curb the spread of the virus by carrying out health promotion activities and gaining trust among the community so that people bring those suspected of having Ebola to hospitals for proper testing and treatment.

“We are very concerned by the epidemiological situation in the Butembo area,” said John Johnson, MSF project coordinator in Butembo, a city of a million people. So far, the number of cases in Butembo city center is low, however the number of cases is rising quickly in the eastern suburbs and outlying, isolated districts. “We’re expecting this outbreak will last for a while, and we must increase our efforts to get it under control. With the agreement of the authorities, we have made a strategic decision to roll out our activities close to the affected populations and to organize training of key people in the community so that we can reach patients and their relatives.”

Efforts to reach Ebola suspects living in isolated areas have had initial success. New cases are being reported from these areas and patients are being brought to the Ebola Treatment Center in Butembo, where demand has led MSF to more than double the number of beds in the facility, from fewer than 30 when it was first opened to 64.

Meanwhile, MSF has also reinforced its activities to decontaminate health centers and vaccinate frontline health workers to help contain the epidemic. So far, 2,000 frontline workers have received the Ebola vaccine.

In Mangina, where the epidemic started, no new cases have been reported for several weeks.

In Beni, the number of cases per week remains stable, however new cases are still being confirmed on a daily basis. “To fight this, we have stepped up our medical and health operations by opening a 48-bed transit center [in Beni] that remains busy,” said Axelle Ronsse, coordinator of MSF’s Ebola response. “We also, for example, perform decontaminations in health centers where a confirmed patient has been. But our actions aren’t limited to reactive responses: we have increased our training of health professionals and are raising awareness amongst communities of hygiene practices. Four months after the start of the epidemic, we remain mobilized and vigilant in the face of new developments.”

Working closely with WHO and the Congolese Ministry of Health, MSF teams have been responding to the Ebola epidemic in North Kivu and neighboring Ituri province since it was declared on August 1, 2018. MSF is currently running Ebola Treatment Centers in the towns of Mangina, Butembo, and Tchomia; an isolation center in Bunia; and a transit center in Beni. MSF also carries out control, prevention, and awareness activities in health care centers and among affected communities.