When the DRC is so far away, why is Ebola an international concern?

EbolaCC: DFID at Compfight

Diseases such as Ebola have a sense of otherness about them. They stem from nations that we have little knowledge of. Few of us are familiar with the poverty there, or how inflicting misery upon them could impact our lives even though we’re thousands of miles away.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is an international public health emergency. Until recently, the disease has remained confined to the country’s rural areas. While this doesn’t make its spread any less sad or tragic, it does reduce its ability to move across borders. All of this changed when it reached Goma, where more than a million people live.

What is Ebola?

Officially known as Ebola hemmhoragic fever, Ebola is a virus that results in severe internal and external bleeding. It starts with flu-like symptoms, which includes a headache, muscle aches, tiredness, and fever. Depending on where you live in the world, the survival rate is as low as 10%. Surviving Ebola requires ongoing medical support and many of the countries where the virus takes hold lack adequate healthcare facilities.

Coming into contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who’s had the disease increases your risk of catching it. The disease is so virulent, you’re at risk of catching it if you touch objects contaminated with the blood, sputum, or feces of an infected person.

How did the latest outbreak start?

It’s believed that the latest Ebola outbreak started in the Kivu region of the DRC. The first case was recorded on August 13th, 2018. Initially, it took over 200 days for the case numbers to reach 1000. It then took only 70 days for the case numbers to reach 2000. So far, two-thirds of the patients have died.

One problem that’s exacerbating matters is ongoing military conflicts in the DRC. Combined with poor access to healthcare, this means that patients aren’t receiving the treatment they require. It also makes it incredibly difficult for aid agencies to deliver vaccines. Hospitals are frequent military targets and the region is too unstable for international healthcare professionals to work openly and safely. As a result, the number of resources available is being swamped by the rising number of cases.

Is there a vaccine against Ebola?

There’s a vaccine against Ebola and it’s more than 99% effective. According to figures from 2016, the total cost of a vaccine is just over $135 per dose. Although that may not seem astronomical to many in the Western World, the average income in the DRC is $395 per year. Essentially, if people were left to fund their own vaccines, they’d need to spend 1/3 of their income; per person. This becomes even more challenging for parents, who would need to cover their children too.

It’s also worth recognizing that poor access to healthcare means that having access to funds doesn’t necessarily guarantee the vaccine would be acquired. Many people in the DRC are displaced on a daily basis, so they have no idea of knowing when they’ll next see a medical professional.

Why is Ebola now an international concern?

The disease’s spread to Goma means there’s a stronger chance of it traversing more borders. By announcing Ebola as an international public health crisis, the WHO is trying to generate more money from donor nations to squash the problem. At present, another $54 million is needed to tackle the problem.

Until more money is generated, further attempts to prevent its spread will be like playing whack a mole. Except, the consequences are far more severe.

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About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.