Local health officials and the World Health Organization today finally declared the end of an outbreak of Ebola that had plagued the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa for nearly two years. It was the second-largest outbreak of the deadly viral disease in recorded history, infecting over 3,400 people and killing 2,280. The good news comes after a recent close call, in which new cases in March and April prolonged the outbreak.
The epidemic began in August 2018 along the northeastern North Kivu region of the DRC. By mid-2019, the outbreak’s toll surpassed any other known previous outbreak, except for the outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 that infected almost 30,000 people and killed more than 11,000. Though not the deadliest outbreak of Ebola ever seen in terms of fatality rate (some strains have been found to kill 90 percent of infected people), the North Kivu outbreak still killed two out of every three victims.
For the first time since the disease was discovered in the 1970s, health care workers had a reliable and effective vaccine available to use during this latest outbreak. Some 300,000 people were vaccinated, according to the WHO, including in nearby regions and countries where cases threatened to spill over. Sadly, armed conflict in the region and a longstanding mistrust of health care workers by residents impeded efforts to control the spread of the bloodborne disease. On several occasions, medical centers and Ebola response workers were targeted by usually unknown assailants, sometimes with fatal results.
Through much of 2020, though, the outbreak finally seemed to be contained, and it was widely expected that the WHO would declare it ended by early April, over 50 days after the last known new case was reported. But days before the deadline, WHO officials announced that a new case had been found that was connected to the existing outbreak. Several more cases appeared, the latest occurring on April 27.
However, it now appears that the coast is truly clear, since there have been no further reports in two incubation periods’ worth of time following the last reported case. The DRC’s health minister announced the end of the outbreak during a press conference Thursday, which was also supported by the WHO’s African office.
Unfortunately, it’s not the end of Ebola in Africa completely. There’s already another, unrelated outbreak elsewhere in the DRC that began this summer in the northwestern region of Équateur province. So far, at least 17 people there have caught the virus, and 11 have died.
Ebola is still largely zoonotic, meaning that outbreaks start from animal-to-human transmission (presumably from bats). And it requires close contact with bodily fluids like blood for the virus to spread from person to person. But new outbreaks of Ebola seem to be occurring much more rapidly than in the past, when there were often years or decades between new cases. While we may be better equipped to handle Ebola now, it’s likely that the virus will continue to be a persistent nightmare for the foreseeable future.