Ebola will continue to rock the Democratic Republic of the Congo until the middle of 2019, a World Health Organization boss has warned.
The outbreak has now killed 212 people out of a total 339 who have been infected, making it the worst in the African nation’s history.
More than half of cases may be spreading inside pop-up ‘health centres’ which don’t have running water and reuse needles, experts revealed today.
Peter Salama, the WHO’s emergency response chief, has warned the international agency is expecting the disease to last ‘at least another six months’.
The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has now killed 212 people after infecting a suspected 339, and officials warn it will last ‘at least another six months’
Of the 212 people who have died in the Ebola outbreak since it began in August, 174 of them were confirmed to have the virus, while the remaining 38 were ‘probable’ cases
‘It’s very hard to predict timeframes in an outbreak as complicated as this,’ said Mr Salama.
‘But certainly we’re planning on at least another six months before we can declare this outbreak over.’
The outbreak, which began in the north-eastern city of Beni and is taking place in the North Kivu region, has been difficult for authorities to control.
Among the 212 people who have died in the outbreak, 174 of them were confirmed to have had Ebola, with 38 of them ‘probable’ cases.
Of the total 339 believed to have been infected with the virus, which can cause people to bleed uncontrollably, 301 cases have been confirmed.
Many people are suspicious of health workers and avoid treatment, while armed groups in the area have kidnapped and killed people trying to treat the sick.
Now experts say one of the main places the disease is spreading is in the hundreds of unofficial, makeshift health centres in Beni.
These facilities can just be rooms in people’s houses, may not even have running water for handwashing, and reuse needles for injecting medicines.
‘Those facilities, we believe, are one of the major drivers of transmission,’ said Mr Salama.
‘Probably more than 50 per cent of cases in Beni have been driven from these tradi-modern health care facilities, and the fact that hygiene and injection practices in these areas are relatively unsafe.’
Ebola causes a fever and severe weakness – pictured, health workers carry a patient through an Ebola treatment centre in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 3
An unusually high number of children have been infected in this outbreak, officials say – pictured, a worker carries a swaddled four-day-old baby thought to have caught the virus
Of the 339 people thought to have been infected with Ebola during the DRC’s outbreak, 301 of those have been confirmed – pictured, medical workers at the Doctors Without Borders treatment centre in Butembo help a patient whose illness has not been confirmed
Experts realised the way the disease was spreading had changed in October, when unprecedented numbers of children started becoming infected.
Health workers realised these were children being treated for malaria in these unofficial health centres – they believe people are confusing the two diseases because early symptoms, including fever, weakness and vomiting, are the same.
HAS THE DRC HAD AN Ebola OUTBREAK BEFORE?
DRC escaped the brutal Ebola pandemic that began in 2014, which was finally declared over in January 2016 – but it was struck by a smaller outbreak last year.
Four DRC residents died from the virus in 2017. The outbreak lasted just 42 days and international aid teams were praised for their prompt responses.
The new outbreak is the DRC’s tenth since the discovery of Ebola in the country in 1976, named after the river. The outbreak earlier this summer was its ninth.
Health experts credit an awareness of the disease among the population and local medical staff’s experience treating for past successes containing its spread.
DRC’s vast, remote geography also gives it an advantage, as outbreaks are often localised and relatively easy to isolate.
It was revealed yesterday that officials in the country have never seen such a devastating outbreak.
‘No other epidemic in the world has been as complex as the one we are currently experiencing,’ said Dr Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the DRC’s health minister.
Having started on August 1, it is the 10th outbreak in the country since the disease, which causes extreme fever, bleeding and diarrhoea, was first discovered 42 years ago.
‘This epidemic remains dangerous and unpredictable, and we must not let our guard down,’ said Dr Kalenga.
‘We must continue to pursue a very dynamic response that requires permanent readjustments and real ownership at the community level.’
He added: ‘Since their arrival in the region, the response teams have faced threats, physical assaults, repeated destruction of their equipment, and kidnapping.
‘Two of our colleagues in the Rapid Response Medical Unit even lost their lives in an attack.’
Dr Kalenga said teams responding to the outbreak are violently attacked, on average, three to four times a week.
In October, militants killed 11 civilians and a soldier in Beni, a city with a population of around 230,000 people where the outbreak is thought to have started.
Despite facing resistance from people who don’t want health workers treating them, the government has managed to vaccinate more than 27,000 people.
Those who are known to have come into contact with others who had the disease have been targeted by the vaccination programme.
Health workers must be covered from head to toe at all times because Ebola spreads through contact with infected people – pictured, medics carry a bible to a patient in Butembo
People thought to have Ebola are quarantined in medical treatment centres like the one, pictured, run by Doctors Without Borders in the city of Bunia, 200km from Beni
Unofficial health centres are triggering the spread of around half of Ebola cases in the city of Beni, experts say, because they are unhygienic (pictured, health workers at the Doctors Without Borders treatment centre in Butembo)
Unusually, children are being badly affected because they’re catching the virus while in medical clinics for other reasons, experts say.
Jessica Illunga, a spokesperson for the health ministry in DRC said in October: ‘There is an abnormally high number of children who have contracted and died of Ebola in Beni.
‘Normally, in every Ebola epidemic, children are not as affected.’
Dr Peter Salama, emergency response chief at the World Health Organization (WHO), last month warned the current Ebola outbreak would only get worse.
The combination of rebel violence and pre-election unrest is creating a ‘perfect storm’ for an even worse epidemic, he said.
WHAT IS EBOLA AND HOW DEADLY IS IT?
Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, killed at least 11,000 across the world after it decimated West Africa and spread rapidly over the space of two years.
That pandemic was officially declared over back in January 2016, when Liberia was announced to be Ebola-free by the WHO.
The country, rocked by back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2003, was hit the hardest by the fever, with 40 per cent of the deaths having occurred there.
Sierra Leone reported the highest number of Ebola cases, with nearly of all those infected having been residents of the nation.
WHERE DID IT BEGIN?
An analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the outbreak began in Guinea – which neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A team of international researchers were able to trace the pandemic back to a two-year-old boy in Meliandou – about 400 miles (650km) from the capital, Conakry.
Emile Ouamouno, known more commonly as Patient Zero, may have contracted the deadly virus by playing with bats in a hollow tree, a study suggested.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE STRUCK DOWN?
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Figures show nearly 29,000 people were infected from Ebola – meaning the virus killed around 40 per cent of those it struck.
Cases and deaths were also reported in Nigeria, Mali and the US – but on a much smaller scale, with 15 fatalities between the three nations.
Health officials in Guinea reported a mysterious bug in the south-eastern regions of the country before the WHO confirmed it was Ebola.
Ebola was first identified by scientists in 1976, but the most recent outbreak dwarfed all other ones recorded in history, figures show.
HOW DID HUMANS CONTRACT THE VIRUS?
Scientists believe Ebola is most often passed to humans by fruit bats, but antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees could also be to blame.
It can be transmitted between humans through blood, secretions and other bodily fluids of people – and surfaces – that have been infected.
IS THERE A TREATMENT?
The WHO warns that there is ‘no proven treatment’ for Ebola – but dozens of drugs and jabs are being tested in case of a similarly devastating outbreak.
Hope exists though, after an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, protected nearly 6,000 people. The results were published in The Lancet journal.