1000 Deaths and Rising: The Complexity of DR Congo’s Ebola Outbreak

The Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has officially taken the lives of over 1000 individuals, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. These statistics, which were released at the end of last week, have been accumulating since the outbreak’s onslaught in August 2018. This occurrence is considered the second deadliest in the history of this Filoviridae Virus in the world and the deadliest in the DRC. This specific incidence afflicting humanity is often referred to as the Kivu outbreak due to the initial emergence in this northeastern DRC province; however, the identified virulent strain is the Zaire Ebola Virus which happens to carry the highest rate of mortality of all strains.

The following is an up-to-date timeline of the current Ebola outbreak’s transition to an epidemic:

  • August 1st, 2018: The DRC’s Ministry of Health declares an Ebola outbreak in Mangina, North Kivu
  • August 7th, 2018: Laboratory findings confirm this outbreak is caused by Zaire Ebola
  • October 17th, 2018: World Health Organization (WHO) convenes a meeting about the Kivu outbreak. WHO declares this situation does not constitute the classification of a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”
  • October 20th, 2018: An armed attack occurs in Beni, Kivu at a health care facility leaving 12 people dead
  • November 9th, 2018: The number of cases in DRC reaches 319 which marks the largest outbreak in the country’s history
  • November 29th, 2018: The Kivu epidemic becomes the second largest recorded outbreak of the Ebola virus in the history of the disease on this planet.
  • December 27th, 2018: There is an announcement of postponement of elections in Benin & Butembo which are two largest cities in Kivu.
  • February 24th, 2019: An MSF health care facility is partially burned down and MSF suspends activities in North Kivu by unknown militants
  • February 27th, 2019: A second MSF health care facility is attacked also by unknown militants and the NGO is forced to evacuate staff and suspend all operations in the province of Kivu
  • March 20th, 2019: The outbreak reaches the 1,000 confirmed cases mark of the Ebola Virus
  • April 12th, 2019: WHO holds an additional meeting but finds the Kivu outbreak still doesn’t qualify as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”
  • May 3rd, 2019: The number of deaths secondary to the Ebola virus reaches 1000

Although each explicit manifestation of this deadly communicable disease carries with it seemingly insurmountable barriers in the form of human resources, supply logistics, social tendencies, and global support, the Kivu is particularly devastating due to political uncertainty, lack of trust in the health care system, and civil unrest.

Despite the increase in novel innovations for treating Ebola and even a promising vaccine that can prevent the virus virology, the Kivu outbreak continues to surge ahead and torture the human species in large part to a break down of trust in the medical system. The surge has lead to identifying 126 confirmed cases over a seven day stretch at the end of April 2019 in addition to the aforementioned data confirming this outbreak to be the second largest in the history of Ebola. Despite this, the mistrust has amassed in a disbelief that the outbreak even exists. A study conducted by the Lancet in March 2019 revealed that 32% of the respondents believed that the outbreak did not exist in the DRC, it only served as a way serve the elite’s financial interests. Another 36% stated that the Ebola outbreak was fabricated to further destabilize the surrounding areas. With these sentiments, the responders marked that fewer than two-thirds would actually want to receive the vaccine for Ebola. These perceptions of fellow humans provides an additional barrier to overcome for health care professionals in addition to treating a high mortality rate disease in resource limited settings.

While the mistrust in the healthcare system provides a tremendous intrinsic challenge for the DRC, the civil conflict that has targeted Ebola treatment centers delivers a physical and emotional component of the devastatingly uniqueness of this outbreak. With over 100 armed groups thought to be estimated within Kivu province, this has led to widespread violence causing this area to be difficult to maintain access. Due to the high rate of armed groups and the political unrest, there has been 119 incidents of Ebola treatment centers and/or health workers that have been attacked since the start of this outbreak. A few shocking examples include the murder of Dr. Richard Mouzoko who was a Cameroonian WHO physician and the two torched MSF facilities in the northern part of Kivu that were mentioned in the timeline.

The Kivu Ebola outbreak has been unanimously christened one of the most complex humanitarian crises that faces this fragile planet today – the global health community is attempting to treat a disease with a 50% mortality rate, with inadequate but effective evidence-based treatment options in a resource-limited setting, all while in a treacherous war zone. Although these are insurmountable odds, health care professionals across Africa and other parts of the world are addressing the needs of their patients and communities to defeat this ailment. These physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and so many others are generating trust in the health care system at a grass-roots level in the DRC to combat the negative perceptions and the actual outbreak. This example, that the global health community can learn from, highlights the role each person dedicated to global health needs to undertake before an outbreak batters a part of this fragile planet. The vitality of trust can start to be built through having individual/group conversations truly listen to health beliefs, coming in with an open mind to acknowledge local health treatments to complement evidence-based treatment, providing patient centered care that encompasses their culture and values, supporting capacity-building initiatives that allow humanity to act accordingly, investing both time and resources in local public health care infrastructure, and expressing empathy ubiquitously socially and professionally.

Being part of the global health community, it is imperative that this outbreak is adequately supported by humanity. As fellow humans striving towards a healthier society, health care professionals and public health experts must accompany those tormented by the social factors associated with Ebola and the actual virus through global awareness of the situation, an un-stigmatized compassion for those who contract the disease, and a pragmatic solidarity to address this humanitarian crisis.  

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