The Ebola Outbreak in Central Africa and its Implications
The recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen over 3,000 confirmed cases and around 2,100 deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated the epidemic is currently 'on the retreat'. Still, burning questions remain as to why it occurred and the possibility of similar outbreaks happening in future.
International Organisations and NGOs have faced significant challenges in dealing with this particular crisis, primarily because the DRC remains a volatile country, with multiple armed groups operating in the north-eastern provinces. Kidnappings, violence and general lawlessness are widespread in many areas, making it difficult for medical staff to contain the spread of infection within communities. The fact that those communities themselves often distrust outsiders compounds this problem. In July two aid workers were killed by unidentified assailants, and many more have faced harassment and violence.
In June three cases of the disease were also reported in western Uganda, although this is unsurprising given the highly porous nature of the Ugandan-DRC border. More recently the WHO has requested test results from possible cases in Tanzania although this information has been withheld by the Tanzanian government who claim that all patients tested negative for Ebola. Overall, the outbreak does seem to be coming under control. However, this is not to say that the disease will not emerge again in future.
The current outbreak comes on the heels of the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which was the largest ever recorded. In that instance, there were over 28,000 reported cases and around 11,000 deaths. Although the Congo case is not as severe, it is concerning that the two worst Ebola epidemics in history have both occurred within the last five years. Both outbreaks were also of the same strain of Ebola called Zaire, which is known to be the deadliest. In both cases, similar factors were blamed, including inadequate healthcare systems and distrust of outside assistance.
Since the first outbreak, significant advancements were made with regards to treatment, and a preliminary vaccine was made available. NGOs are now asking how this most recent outbreak got so out of hand when health authorities should have been more prepared. The WHO has come under heavy criticism for failing to implement the lessons learned from the 2013 outbreak. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) claims that the distribution of vaccine stocks by UN staff has been too cautious and that many medical teams had insufficient resources to enter the field. As well as this the DRCs former health minister Oly Ilunga has been arrested for allegedly mishandling funds meant to fight the outbreak. MSF has called for an independent committee to manage Ebola resources with greater transparency. These multiple failings demonstrate just how underprepared the international community is to deal with large-scale epidemics.
This comes at a time when the threat from infectious disease is rising due to several converging factors. Rising temperatures and sea levels resulting from climate change mean that waterborne, and insect-borne diseases such as cholera and malaria will become more common as droughts and flooding cause poor sanitation. As well as this, antibiotic resistance poses a significant threat regarding bacterial infections, some of which may become impossible to treat in future. Increased urbanization means more people living close to each other, creating a hotbed for possible outbreaks. As cross border travel and air travel become more common infections will more easily spread from nation to nation and continent to continent. Air travel, in particular, was one of the most critical factors that contributed to the 2013 Ebola outbreak. Aid workers contracting the infection and then returning to their home countries before they displayed symptoms allowed the virus to travel across the world in a matter of hours.
The global threat posed by infectious disease has mostly fallen off the radar since the end of the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Other topics such as rising populism and geopolitical tension between the great powers have captured public attention; however, the repeat Ebola outbreaks show that the international community is ill-prepared to deal with another large-scale pandemic, at a time when the risk of such an event is increasing. As such, the accepted narrative that communicable infections are being confined to the history books may not hold true for much longer.