By Peter Yeung
Fresh cases of Ebola have been detected just days before the deadly epidemic in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was to be declared over.
The Ministry of Health on Friday confirmed the death from Ebola of a 26-year-old man in the city of Beni in North Kivu province. An 11-month-old girl treated at the same health centre also died, it was announced on Sunday, and a 7-year-old girl is currently being treated for the virus.
It marks a significant blow for the Central African country, which had previously recorded its last Ebola case on 17 February and was on the verge of ending an outbreak that has killed more than 2200 people since August 2018.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that even before the announcement it was prepared for further cases to emerge. “While not welcome news, this is an event we anticipated,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, in a media statement. “We kept response teams in Beni and other high-risk areas for precisely this reason.”
As part of the Ebola surveillance system, health teams on the ground are investigating alerts every day. These can either be reports of those with Ebola symptoms or of deaths in areas that are considered high risk. The WHO said 2600 alerts are currently being analysed across the country’s eastern provinces.
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Health authorities had already planned to remain on high alert for the next 80 days, and to provide care for Ebola survivors as part of an 18-month programme of regular check-ups.
Efforts are now under way to find all potential contacts of the new cases in order to offer them vaccination and to monitor their health. If no new cases emerge, the DRC will have to wait another 42 days – the equivalent of two incubation periods for the virus – until the Ebola epidemic can be declared over.
The setback underlines the huge challenge posed in eradicating a virus. The problem is made worse by the arrival of the coronavirus in the DRC last month.
In a statement, Kate Moger at humanitarian organisation the International Rescue Committee called the situation a “triple emergency”. “Vulnerable populations facing ongoing humanitarian crises, the spread of COVID-19, and now again potentially a re-emerging Ebola crisis,” she said.
Flare-ups had been expected in the DRC, which has had 10 outbreaks of the virus since it was first detected in humans near the Ebola river in 1976. The Ebola virus can remain active on medical equipment for weeks and can be transmitted through semen for more than 550 days after a victim has recovered. In rare cases, survivors can also relapse.
A 2019 study warned that the 42-day threshold may not be enough to say with confidence that the epidemic is over because the complex security situation means some cases in the DRC may have gone undetected.
However, officials are confident that the new cases don’t necessarily mean the virus will spiral out of control again, particularly because more than 300,000 Congolese have already been vaccinated.
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