The new leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s fight against the outbreak of the Ebola virus said he’ll bring the disease under control by the end of the year.
The current epidemic in eastern Congo has lasted 12 months, infecting about 2,500 people and killing more than 1,700, according to the Health Ministry. Already the second-deadliest outbreak in history, the World Health Organisation declared it a global public health emergency last week.
President Felix Tshisekedi responded to the WHO’s action by taking direct control of the Ebola response through a team led by Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the head of the country’s biomedical research institute. Health Minister Oly Ilunga, who had overseen the government’s strategy, resigned on Monday after being sidelined.
The WHO’s declaration will help bring in more resources to stamp out the disease, Muyembe, 77, said in an interview Tuesday in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. “Three to four months will be enough to put an end to this outbreak,” he said.
Muyembe, who has a Ph.D. in virology from Belgium’s University of Leuven, was one of two people dispatched to Yambuku in northern Congo in 1976 to investigate what turned out to be the first known outbreak of Ebola. The village is situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.
He accurately predicted how long it would take to end an Ebola outbreak last year in northwestern Congo, according to The Atlantic magazine.
The current outbreak is concentrated in North Kivu and Ituri provinces that have long been blighted by violence perpetrated by numerous militias. The insecurity contributes to distrust of health workers in affected communities that have interfered with public engagement and hampered the overall response, Muyembe said.
“The bottleneck of this Ebola response is the population’s lack of engagement,” he said. The public is “traumatized by armed conflict and so doesn’t really believe in Ebola but remains traumatized by all it has seen.”
While most of Congo’s 10 Ebola outbreaks have occurred in remote, rural areas, the current one is a region with a greater, more mobile population, Muyembe said.
The WHO estimates $324 million is needed to fund the response over the next six months, about three times the amount contributed since last August when the outbreak was declared. Cases doubled from April to June this year, with about 75 to 100 infections occurring weekly, according to disaster-relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres.
The current epidemic-response plan has a six-month timeline, WHO Assistant Director-General for Emergencies Ibrahima Soce Fall said in a phone interview. However, that doesn’t mean that transmission can’t be halted earlier, he said.
What’s needed now is “a critical analysis of where are the gaps in intervention and quality of intervention, and to reduce the gaps we have,” Fall said.
Muyembe plans to encourage more people in areas where the outbreak is occurring to seek treatment at specialist facilities.
Currently, almost a third of people killed by Ebola are “dying in their communities, meaning that the community is hiding sick people at home and doesn’t bring them to the treatment centers,” he said.
More than 170,000 people identified as contacts of confirmed cases or their contacts have received a vaccine from Merck & Co. While the WHO has more than 200,000 extra doses, they say there’s a need for alternative options.
Ilunga’s departure could facilitate the use of a second experimental vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson to help contain the epidemic. The former health minister had opposed the introduction of the J&J vaccine, which is designed for protecting populations not immediately at risk and requires two doses 56 days apart – unlike Merck’s single-dose injection. Ilunga had said that a second regimen could prove confusing and exacerbate already complicated community relations.
“It’s for the country to say whether or not we need a second vaccine” and a government-appointed panel will take the decision, Muyembe said.