At least 10 more cases are suspected in the northwestern town of Bikoro, Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, the head of the DRC’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, said Tuesday.
In the past five weeks, the DRC has seen 21 suspected cases with Ebola-like symptoms and 17 deaths.
A team of experts from WHO, Doctors Without Borders and the central African country’s Provincial Division of Health traveled on Tuesday to the outbreak area. WHO said in a statement that it is working with the DRC government to “rapidly scale up its operations and mobilize health partners using the model of a successful response to a similar EVD [Ebola virus disease] outbreak in 2017.”
According to Doctors Without Borders spokesperson Brienne Prusak, the humanitarian medical organization has been supporting the DRC Ministry of Health on the ground in its investigation of the current outbreak since last Saturday.
“Time is of the essence,” WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told HuffPost. “The faster you get to the core of the outbreak and the quicker you get in place those necessary measures ― isolating those people who are sick, identifying contacts they know ― it [increases] the chances you have that the virus will not spread somewhere else.”
All means of air travel and other transportation methods are being used to get to the town quickly, Jasarevic said. He noted that the team is currently in discussions about setting up a mobile laboratory unit and whether to deploy some of the Ebola vaccine.
Last year’s DRC outbreak was contained shortly before an agreement on using the vaccine was reached, so its potential use this year would mark its first deployment in the country.
Ebola is considered endemic in the DRC, and this is the second outbreak there in less than a year. Last May, an outbreak in the northern part of the country led to eight infections and four deaths.
The virus typically spreads among humans in one of two ways: through exposure to animals that carry it ― often bats or bushmeat (that is, wild animals caught and eaten in the region, such as monkeys, antelope and rats) ― or through exposure to bodily fluids of infected patients. The average fatality rate for Ebola is 50 percent.
The last major Ebola outbreak that swept through West Africa officially ended more than two years ago, killing approximately 11,300 people and infecting 28,600. Global health experts have called WHO’s failure to quickly raise the alarm and adequately respond to that epidemic, which began in 2014, an “egregious failure.”
The difference in response between 2014 and now is “night and day,” according to Loyce Pace, the president and executive director of the Global Health Council, a membership organization that lobbies for global health priorities. In this “new normal,” Pace said the world health community must immediately dispatch resources and enlist international actors to fight outbreaks.
“The global health community collectively has learned its lesson,” she said, although she added that some pandemic preparedness issues still need to be worked out.
While the global health community has improved its mobilization efforts, U.S. leadership is sending mixed messages.
Recently, Congress almost doubled global health security funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But President Donald Trump’s stance has been to cut such global health aid. Previous versions of the president’s budgets have called for spending reductions at the CDC, USAID and the Global Fund.
Trump’s newly proposed rescissions package includes the taking back of $252 million not spent on the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. While technically the money was aimed at the Ebola outbreak, officials have been directing the remaining funds toward other public health outbreaks, such as the Zika virus.
This kind of mixed government messaging undermines the U.S. as a world leader and, more importantly, harms global preparedness and commitment to fighting potential pandemics, Pace said.
“We need to keep our foot on the gas when it comes to global health security,” Pace argued. “We don’t necessarily know what the next Ebola or Zika could be, and it’s pretty irresponsible not to stay ahead of the curve considering the resources we have as a country.”
Trump’s track record on Ebola itself includes his infamous tweets (over 100 of them during the last major outbreak) lobbying to close U.S. borders and institute a travel ban against those infected ― steps that public health experts said would worsen the problem by driving people to hide their travel.
Amy Pope, a senior Obama administration counterterrorism official who worked on that outbreak, told The Hill last week that Trump’s tweets contributed to the escalating national fear of the deadly virus.
The president has yet to comment publicly about the new outbreak.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Global Heath Council.
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