Just days before the World Health Organization was set to declare the official end of the world’s second-deadliest outbreak of Ebola, a new case in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was reported Friday. Now, it’s uncertain when this outbreak will truly end.
In August 2018, the Ebola virus began sickening people living in the DRC, particularly in the North Kivu region of the country. Over the next two years, the virus infected more than 3,300 people and killed more than 2,200 in two countries—making for the second-highest death toll from Ebola since the 2013-2014 outbreak that ravaged West Africa and killed upwards of 11,000 people.
Widespread violence and civil unrest in the region hampered attempts to contain this latest outbreak, but public health workers also had a tool that wasn’t available before: a highly effective vaccine. More than 170,000 doses were given to residents and health care workers, most often in a “ring vaccination” strategy meant to stop chains of transmission before they began.
After nearly two years, the outbreak finally seemed to be winding down, with no new cases reported in over 50 days. The WHO planned to declare the outbreak over on Monday, April 13, provided there were no further cases in affected areas. But on Friday, the WHO announced that a new case was found in Beni, a city in North Kivu near one of the epicenters of the outbreak.
“Unfortunately, this means the government of DRC will not be able to declare an end to the Ebola outbreak on Monday, as hoped,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference Friday.
At this point, details about the new patient are still unclear, as is whether there remains a risk for additional cases. Regardless, the timing couldn’t be worse, in light of the pandemic of covid-19 that’s started to make inroads into Africa.
So far, there have been over 10,000 reported cases spread across 52 countries in Africa, far fewer the official counts of many other countries. But these outbreaks seem to be several weeks behind the rest of the world in their spread. Public health experts are worried that health care systems in many of these poorer countries could be especially overwhelmed by local waves of covid-19, given the lack of intensive care units and ventilators available to many hospitals and the higher levels of malnutrition and other underlying health conditions among impoverished residents.