The world must wake up to the threat of latest Ebola outbreak

Thursday, March 28, 2019
By Paul Martin

The number of confirmed deaths has passed 1,000, making it the second worst in history


In 1976, the laboratory of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp received a Thermos from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast central African country then called Zaire. In it was the blood of a Flemish nun who had died of an unknown disease. The mysterious illness caused fever, uncontrollable diarrhoea and haemorrhagic bleeding. Most people who contracted it were dead within weeks. Only later was it given a name: Ebola.

Ebola is back, even if the world has barely noticed. What has become the second-worst outbreak in history is quietly felling victims in eastern Congo, one of the poorest regions of the world. This month, confirmed cases topped 1,000, with 639 deaths recorded by March 26, according to the country’s health ministry. That is a long way off the more than 11,000 who died in west Africa from 2014 to 2016 when the disease spread across Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and beyond. But it is roughly the level reached by that epidemic in July 2014, just before it gained deadly momentum.

The latest outbreak is far from under control. Peter Piot, who was a 27-year-old microbiologist in 1976 when the flask containing Ebola landed in Antwerp, says there was a resurgence of cases just last week. Many were not linked to known transmission chains, meaning the disease is spreading beyond the scope of healthcare workers to contain it. If the outbreak cannot be brought under control, the danger is it could spread to urban centres — where it is harder to stop — or across the borders into Uganda, Rwanda or South Sudan. Given the ease of air travel, cases could start popping up in the west.

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