Ebola Has Returned to Africa and Officials Are Racing to Contain It

The gates of the Matanda Hospital in Butembo, found in the North Kivu province of the DRC. The hospital is where the first case of a new Ebola outbreak in the country died earlier this month.
The gates of the Matanda Hospital in Butembo, found in the North Kivu province of the DRC. The hospital is where the first case of a new Ebola outbreak in the country died earlier this month.
Photo: Al-hadji Kudra Maliro (AP)

The deadly viral disease Ebola has once again surfaced in Africa, and health officials are rushing out vaccines and other measures to stop its spread. As of Tuesday, there have been at least 11 cases and seven deaths in two countries, including Guinea, which had a massive outbreak in 2013 that ultimately left 11,000 dead. Several other African countries are now on high alert.

In Guinea, at least seven cases have been reported since early February, with three victims having died so far. It’s the first outbreak in the region since the 2013-2016 epidemic that swept across West Africa and even briefly made its way to countries outside of Africa, including the U.S. It was the largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history, with almost 30,000 cases and 11,000 deaths reported.

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Elsewhere, the Democratic Republic of Congo—located in Central Africa—has reported four cases during the same time period, with two deaths so far. The DRC has faced the bulk of Ebola outbreaks since the virus was first discovered in 1976, including an outbreak that ran from 2018 to 2020 and left over 2,000 dead (the second-largest death toll ever). It is not yet known whether the outbreaks in Guinea and the DRC are connected. But according to Reuters, DRC officials have confirmed through genetic analysis that their current cluster can be traced back to the earlier outbreak in 2018. Genetic analysis of the virus found in Guinea is still underway and should provide answers soon.

On Monday, Guinea officially declared an Ebola epidemic, while the DRC had done so on February 7. The World Health Organization has also now alerted six countries bordering Guinea to be on the lookout for cases, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. Those three countries were the hardest hit during the 2013-2016 epidemic.

Much has changed since then—namely, the development of a highly effective vaccine by the company Merck as well as antiviral drugs (Merck’s vaccine was briefly deployed at the tail end of the 2014 outbreak but didn’t see wide use until 2018). But Africa, like many parts of the world, is still grappling with the covid-19 pandemic. The WHO said Tuesday that stockpiled supplies of vaccines and drugs are being sent over to Guinea and nearby countries. The United Nations also announced today that it will allocate $15 million in emergency relief funds to aid the response in both countries.

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Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning the virus is natively found in wildlife (likely bats) and then spills over to people. If the DRC cluster is connected to an earlier outbreak, though, that may indicate it was somehow started through a human survivor. In people, it’s spread through close contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, which can include sex. Some people are known to carry the virus months after surviving their ordeal, usually in parts of the body less monitored by the immune system, like the eyes and sperm. At this point, it is not known how either outbreak began.

Symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, and muscle pain that can quickly progress to severe and fatal internal bleeding. The mortality rate of Ebola can range from 25% to 90%, though it usually hovers around 50%.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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Will the covid measures in place help contain this?