On Tuesday, the ministry of health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo confirmed a new outbreak of Ebola virus in the northwestern region of the country.
It is the country's ninth Ebola outbreak since the disease was first discovered in a small village in the DRC (then known as Zaire) in 1976. The deadly disease is hitting the town of Bikoro in the country's Équateur province.
The new outbreak was declared on May 8 after laboratory results confirmed two cases of Ebola, according to a press release from the World Health Organization.
"Our country is facing a new epidemic of Ebola that is a public health emergency of international concern," the Ministry of Health stated in a letter to the country's population, posted on Twitter by Dr. Oly Ilunga, the minister of public health. On Thursday, Ilunga confirmed an additional 11 cases and one death due to ebola.
It has been less than one year since the country's last Ebola outbreak. In 2017, eight people were infected and four died of the disease. The 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (pictured above) was the worst in history and the first-ever epidemic, affecting multiple countries, including some cases in the US among travelers. There were 28,616 cases and 11,310 deaths overall in that outbreak.
In the past five weeks, there have been 21 suspected cases of viral hemorrhagic fever and as many as 17 deaths. Of those, 13 cases and one death of ebola have been confirmed.
The Ministry of Health sent samples from five patients to the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in Kinshasa, and two out of the five tested positive for the Zaire strain of Ebola virus disease (EVD). On Thursday, an additional 11 cases were confirmed and one death due to ebola.
However, Ebola is only one type of viral hemorrhagic fever, so it is still not clear whether the other cases and deaths are also from Ebola or another illness. According to the WHO, health officials in the DRC are in the process of collecting additional specimens for testing.
EVD, formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is caused by a virus spread through blood and bodily fluids from infected humans or animals, primarily bats and monkeys.
The early signs of Ebola — fatigue, fever, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea — can be easy to confuse with the flu or malaria. But it can also cause severe hemorrhaging (bleeding or bruising), often resulting in death. The average Ebola case fatality rate is around 50%, but it can be as high as 90%.
The Ministry of Health says it is working with multiple international agencies to control the outbreak.
According to the WHO, the health facilities in Bikoro "have very limited functionality and rely on international organizations to provide supplies that frequently stock out." So the DRC government is teaming up with the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, to scale up operations and strengthen relief efforts.
The WHO said it is relying on the same response model used during the 2017 Ebola outbreak, when international agencies were able to step in immediately (pictured above) to support the DRC and control the outbreak within two months.
“Our top priority is to get to Bikoro to work alongside the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and partners to reduce the loss of life and suffering related to this new Ebola virus disease outbreak [...] Working with partners and responding early and in a coordinated way will be vital to containing this deadly disease,” said Dr. Peter Salama, the WHO deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, in the news release.
There is no specific treatment for Ebola and experimental vaccines are still being tested for safety and efficacy.
Treatment for Ebola usually involves a combination of intense supportive care in the hospital (IV fluids, electrolytes, oxygen) and treating any related complications or infections, according to the WHO.
Whether a patient recovers from Ebola depends on both the quality of supportive care and the patient’s immune system or preexisting health issues. The earlier the patient receives supportive care, the better their chances of survival.
Many people who recover go on to have chronic health problems, such as joint pain or eye problems. However, they will develop antibodies that last for at least 10 years, according to the CDC.
There is no specific treatment, cure, or vaccine for Ebola. Since the 2014 epidemic, researchers have been working on an experimental vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV. As of 2017, the vaccine was shown to be somewhat effective in protecting against Ebola but the extent of the protection was uncertain. It was not deployed in the 2018 outbreak. According to the WHO, there are also a number of immunological and drug therapies for Ebola in development.
Health officials have confirmed 11 new cases and one death from ebola.