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WHO braces for six more months of Ebola in DRC

November 13, 2018

Over 200 people have died in the worst outbreak of Ebola on record in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the WHO said, warning that it could be six more months before efforts to contain the spread succeed.

Health workers in protective clothing carry a casket with the body of someone suspected of having died of Ebola to a truck outside a house
Image: Getty Images/J. Wessels

The latest outbreak of the deadly virus in north eastern DRC has killed over 209 people, World Health Organization emergency response chief Peter Salama said on Tuesday in Geneva. 

"It is very hard to predict timeframes in an outbreak as complicated as this, with so many variables that are outside our control, but certainly we're planning on at least another six months before we can declare this outbreak over," Salama told the media.

The wave of infections in the worst Ebola outbreak in the history of the DRC began in the city of Beni, along the border with Uganda on August 1. It has since spread south to Butemo, some 45 kilometers (28 miles) away, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

On November 11, the Ebola death toll stood at 209, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) field coordinator John Johnson, speaking from Beni on Tuesday, told DW.

"About 50 percent of the cases were in Beni. We are seeing more and more cases in Butemo. They've had about 36 cases so far," Johnson said.

The Ebola virus: a yellow worm-like structure against a purple backdrop
The deadly Ebola virus as it appears under the microscopeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Interventions helping

Johnson said there were signals that interventions were helping. 

"What we are seeing as the outbreak is going on is that the mortality rate has actually been improving over the past month or so," he told DW. "In any Ebola outbreak you expect, at best, the mortality rate is going to be about 50 percent." 

People have been seeking help at the Ebola treatment center sooner, improving their chances of survival, according to Johnson. 

The highly-contagious Ebola causes initial flu-like symptoms that progress to vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding.

Read more: How does Ebola spread?

Population density, community fear, attacks on health workers and armed groups are hampering the response to the outbreak, the tenth in DRC. The outbreak is its worst on record since the virus was named in the mid-1970s. 

A health worker in a white apron, full mask and gloves undergoing the disinfection procedure
International aid organizations are helping health authorities in the DRC fight EbolaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A.-H.K. Maliro

Precautions across the border

Historically, Ebola outbreaks in DRC have been in isolated areas with small populations, making them easier to contain.

"This particular outbreak is happening in an area of North Kivu that is very densely populated. So when you're talking about a dense urban environment it's much more difficult to control because there's a lot more movement of population and al ot more people contacting other people," said Johnson.

Uganda last week began vaccinating health workers against Ebola while other countries in the region continue to boost preventive steps.

Read more: Latest Ebola outbreak in DR Congo poses high regional risk, says WHO

In the DRC itself, some 27,000 people have been vaccinated and nearly 100 have been treated and discharged.