(LONDON) — The World Health Organization says the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to pose an international emergency as the deadly virus emerges in a remote gold mining area.
The global health arm of the United Nations convened its technical advisory committee on Friday to review the situation since first declaring the Ebola epidemic — the second-deadliest in history — a “public health emergency of international concern” on July 17. The rare designation, which often mobilizes more resources and commands global attention, will be maintained for at least another three months.
“This remains a complex and dangerous outbreak,” WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference Friday, after accepting the committee’s recommendation to keep the emergency status.
A total of 3,239 people have reported symptoms of hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern provinces of North Kivu, Ituri and South Kivu since Aug. 1 of last year, according to Congolese health officials, and 3,123 of those individuals have tested positive for Ebola virus disease, which is transmitted through contact with blood or secretions from an infected person and causes an often-fatal type of hemorrhagic fever.
There have been 2,169 deaths so far, including 2,053 people who died from confirmed cases of Ebola. The other deaths are considered probable cases. Just over a thousand people sickened with the virus have recovered, according to Congolese health officials.
This is the 10th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the most severe there since 1976, when scientists first identified the virus near the eponymous Ebola River. It’s also one of the worst on record anywhere, second only to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in multiple West African nations that infected 28,652 people and killed 11,325, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The WHO director-general on Friday noted the “very impressive progress” since the advisory committee last met, with the expanded screening and contact tracing, strengthened infection prevention and control, intensified preparedness efforts in neighboring nations and the implementation of new vaccination strategies.
“So far, these efforts are working,” Tedros said.
The number of new Ebola cases has consistently declined each week for the past month. There were just 15 new confirmed cases reported during Oct. 7-13, compared with the peak of nearly 130 cases during one week in April, according to the WHO’s advisory committee.
Health officials have managed to contain the virus in former hot spots such as Beni, a conflict-torn Congolese city that was the initial epicenter of the current outbreak. They have also successfully prevented further transmission in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, as well as in Uganda, where an infected Congolese family traveled across the border in June.
“But these encouraging trends should be interpreted with caution,” Tedros warned.
While the number of affected areas has reduced, there has been a shift in hot spots from urban settings to more rural, remote communities with “major security challenges,” according to the WHO’s advisory committee. Many of the most recent cases were clustered in the Biakato Mine area in northeastern Ituri province, where there is both legal and illegal mining activities for gold, diamonds and other minerals.
“Although the outbreak is now concentrated in a smaller geographic area,” Tedros said, “that region is more rural and difficult to reach.”
This is the first Ebola outbreak to occur in an active war zone. Health workers have faced sporadic attacks by armed groups operating in the region, which have hampered response efforts. Political instability, a highly mobile population, community mistrust and the spread of misinformation have also posed challenges to bringing the yearlong epidemic under control.
The WHO director-general said the risk of spread within the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to neighboring nations remains “very high,” but still low at the global level. The advisory committee will meet again to reassess the situation in three months.
“We must treat every case as if it is the first, because every single case has the potential to spark a new and bigger outbreak,” Tedros said. “Until we reach zero cases, we are in full response mode.”
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