KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo—Following another outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo late last week, the number of infected people continues to rise steadily, with confirmed cases in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
The current epidemic, which began in August, is considered the second deadliest to hit the DRC, and officials say it is so far showing no signs of abating. As of Dec. 19, the World Health Organization reported a total of 560 cases and 360 confirmed deaths.
Ebola, which causes fever, severe headaches, and, in some cases, hemorrhaging, is highly contagious and is transmitted person-to-person via contact with blood or body fluids. The latest outbreak has a high probability of spreading to nearby provinces in the DRC and to neighboring countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and South Sudan due to loose border control.
The outbreak comes at a time when people are not only getting ready for Christmas celebrations but also when the country is preparing for upcoming the presidential election on Dec. 30. The two events mean an increase in the movement of people in and out of the infected areas, which is likely to exacerbate the spread of the virus.
Complicating matters is ongoing violence from local militias as part of Eastern Congo’s 25-year-old civil war.
Several measures have been initiated to curb the virus’s spread in the region, including travel restrictions, but they have not went well with people given that it’s the festive season. However, DRC’s Health Minister Oly Ilunga told media recently that they have seen an improvement in how communities have been responding to efforts to contain the outbreak.
During the election, millions of people will use touch-screen voting machines, heightening the chance of contamination. To offset this, health officials have established checkpoints with contact-free temperature-sensing devices at the entrance to polling stations in Ebola-infected areas. In addition, hand sanitizer has been distributed for mandatory use at all polling stations.
Other preventative measures put in place by the Ugandan government include vaccinating health workers, who are considered to be at increased risk for catching the virus. Health Minister Ruth Jane Aceng, speaking at a press conference in Kampala, confirmed that 2,000 health workers in the high-risk areas of Bundibugyo, Kasese, and Ntoroko have been vaccinated against the virus, with more in the works.
“There are 3,000 more doses that have been promised and we hope to target more than seven districts,” Aceng was quoted as saying by the Daily Monitor.
Dr. Miriam Nanyunja, a disease control and prevention adviser with WHO, has expressed concern for the health workers on the frontlines of dealing with Ebola patients. Of the 51 reported cases of health workers infected with the virus, 17 have died.
This first phase of Ebola preparedness in the outbreak has cost the Congo government about $19 million. Ilunga told The Associated Press on Dec. 20 that the outbreak is expected to continue for another three or four months.
This is the 10th outbreak since 1976 in the DRC, where the virus is endemic.