With over 28000 people who have contracted Ebola virus and over 11000 deaths, largely in Congo, the World Health Organisation has declared Ebola a global health emergency.
Over 2500 people have contracted the virus in Democratic Republic of Congo during the new outbreak that has killed nearly 1700. 12 new cases are being reported every day.
It has spread to Uganda with 2 dead, and to the borders of Rawanda. The virus reached the city of Goma, with a population of 2 million, prompting the WHO action.
This is significant, in that in June 2016, the WHO had declared the emergency over. So why has Ebola become a threat again? And how did we get here again?
What is Ebola Virus?
- Ebola is a deadly disease that mainly effects humans and non primates. It is caused by an infection with a group of viruses within the genus Ebolavirus, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus was first seen in 1976 near the Ebola river in DR Congo. It has led to several outbreaks in various African countries.
- It causes sudden fever, weakness, muscle pain and sore throat. This progresses to vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding.
- The virus spreads when people come in direct contact through broken skin, mouth or nose and bodily fluids of someone with Ebola.
- While it carries a fatality rate of 50 to 90 %, it can be treated if the infection is identified in time. Dehydration and organ failure are main cause of death.
What Does This Emergency Mean?
WHO uses the global health emergency status sparingly. In the past, it has been declared only 4 times, for pandemic influenza in 2009; for a polio resurgence in 2014; for the Ebola epidemic earlier in West Africa in 2014-16; and for the Zika virus epidemic in 2016.
Aid workers have hailed the move saying it will help raise international support and funds. It will also help getting more healthcare workers to join the fight, get more logistical support and help improve the infrastructure needed to tackle the disease.
The WHO has raised $49 million from January to July, half of what they need to contain the spread.
Despite the global tag, the threat remains regional and the borders will not be shut. There will be no restrictions on travel or trade, and no entry screening of passengers at ports or airports outside the immediate region, according to this BBC report.
Vaccine - Has it helped?
There are two vaccines at play. Currently in use is the one by Merck which is considered 99 percent effective. Approximately 161,000 people have received an Ebola vaccine. Merck says they have donated 195,000 doses to the WHO in the last one year. Over 245,000 more are ready and they will have 900,000 in the next 18 months, according to this article in The New York Times. One batch of the vaccine takes a year to produce.
The second vaccine has been produced by Johnson & Johnson. While experts want Congo to start using this vaccine as well, to help push the vaccination effort, Congo’s ministry of Health is currently refusing to accept it, saying Merck works fine.
Not everyone gets the vaccine. Those who have directly come in contact with an Ebola patient and those who have come in contact with them have received the vaccine.
Why Has It Been Difficult to Contain the Virus?
Trust. There are serious trust issues between the locals and health workers. Health workers have been assaulted and killed - there have been 198 assaults and 7 deaths. The situation is made more complex by a history of violence and conflict. 2 of the health workers were killed in their homes last week.
Lack of trust means people don’t approach authorities on time. By the time a patient is isolated, he has already come in contact with several people.
The case in Goma, the patient was a pastor who preached in at least 7 churches in Ebola affected areas and physically touched patients with the virus. On his travel to Goma, a major transportation hub, he dodged being recognised and isolated.
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