By Sean Jackson
The World Health Organization announced last Wednesday that the current deadly Ebola outbreak in the Congo is now classified as an international health emergency. This comes after a case was confirmed in the city of Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city. The region is widely described by the media and health professionals as a “war zone,” with individuals are concerned over the lack of communication, and the disjointed effort being taken by the government. Citizens of the Congo are taking necessary precautions to help mitigate the spreading of the deadly virus, but uncertainty still plagues the minds of the people.
A World Health Organization expert committee did not classify the previous occasion as an outbreak and declined to advise the UN health agency, even though other experts said it met requirements to be considered an outbreak. The declaration of a global health emergency often/typically brings more international aid to help stop the outbreak from spreading, but they may also react by creating more travel and trade restrictions that may be a crippling blow to the DRC’s economy. More than 1,600 individuals have died since last August, and cases have surpassed 2,500 – the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, directly after Sierra Leone in 2014.
According to the CDC, the Ebola virus spreads to people through direct contact with bodily fluids. This happens when infected body fluids, such as blood, make it through broken skin, and through mucus membranes in the eyes, nose, or mouth. Symptoms of the virus include a high fever, severe headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and unexplained hemorrhaging. Symptoms can appear anywhere between two to twenty-one days after initial contact.
The case in Goma, a city situated in northeastern Congo near the Rwandan border, is near an international airport. The Congolese individual traveled to Uganda and back while carrying the symptoms of the Ebola virus and later died upon his return.
While health professionals are using caution and discretion handling the disease, experts indicate that the risk to outside regions is still relatively low. WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that the international emergency “should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help.”
Other experts say that the international response has been long overdue, but warned about the imposing of travel and trade to these countries. Global health expert Alexandra Phelan from Georgetown University Law Center said, “This essentially serves as a call to the international community that they have to step up appropriate financial and technical support.” She then added that such restrictions, “Would actually restrict the flow of goods and health care workers in to affected countries so they are counterproductive.”
The handling of Ebola in Congo has been a point of disagreement for government officials, with the Health Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo resigning this past Monday. Dr. Oly Ilunga has been heading up the response since the outbreak began last year.
The resignation letter contained criticism towards unidentified actors that was pressuring the ministry to use a second vaccine supported by the WHO and manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. Dr. Ilunga stated that the vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson has not been proven effective, while the Merck treatment that has been given to over 170,000 people has proven to be effective. The President of Congo appointed Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a head at the Congo’s biomedical institute, to continue coordinating a government response.