Lessons learned from the global COVID-19 pandemic about early response and the value of partnerships are helping guide public health officials as they try to keep the latest outbreak of Ebola from becoming more serious and widespread.
The United States co-hosted a meeting today with the Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa (WHO/AFRO), the West African Health Organization (WAHO), and the Governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Guinea to discuss the continuing threat.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that while the “enduring goal” in preparing for health emergencies is to invest in the tools needed to swiftly detect and respond to outbreaks, “our track record on this is far from perfect.” Response to the DRC and Guinea outbreaks, though, has reflected “great strides” in preparedness and cross-border collaboration.
As of Wednesday, Guinea — where the outbreak is in Nzérékoré Prefecture, near the Liberian border — had reported 18 Ebola cases and nine Ebola-related deaths. DRC, with their outbreak in North Kivu Province near the Ugandan border, has reported 12 Ebola cases and six Ebola-related deaths.
The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa resulted in 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths, with the first case believed to have been contracted from a bat in Guinea. Eleven people were treated for Ebola in the United States in late 2014, with two deaths; CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center that summer.
Blinken recognized the challenges faced by countries simultaneously battling COVID-19 while noting it has been 20 days since the last Ebola case was reported in DRC or Guinea. “We also recognize how many lives have been saved by the response to date,” he said, stressing the importance of communication between nations and engaging local communities to combat misinformation and rumors often with the help of Christian and Muslims leaders.
The secretary of State announced $30 million in U.S. government support for the ongoing response and said tech experts were also being deployed to the region.
“As we’ve learned, this is an issue where our fates are bound together,” Blinken said, adding that if the Ebola response continues to work in a well-resourced way it could not only stop the current outbreak but help the region become more resilient in the future.
Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu lauded the advances in vaccines and therapeutics that arose from the last outbreak. “It’s amazing to think 5 years ago we were virtually defenseless against Ebola,” he said.
But Tedros said the origin of this current outbreak — believed to be the bodily fluids of a survivor of the 2014-16 outbreak, per genetic testing — underscores the need to focus on survivor care and research into the long-term ramifications of the virus.
The Oregon Health Authority said Thursday that four people who recently visited Guinea and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are being monitored. “We want to make sure these individuals have the support they need to monitor their health, stay in contact with public health officials and safely get help with medical services if it comes to that,” said Dr. Richard Leman, Chief Medical Officer for Health Security, Preparedness and Response at the OHA Public Health Division.
In Washington state, public health officials are monitoring 23 people with recent travel to the affected regions. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that health officials there “are actively monitoring 44 people who have returned from areas of Africa with active outbreaks of Ebola.” All states are following a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) order requiring airlines to give CDC contact information for passengers who were in Guinea or DRC within 21 days of arrival in the United States.
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, regional director of the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa (AFRO), told today’s high-level meeting that every three days an acute health event is reported to WHO Africa region, with most zoonotic in origin. The reasons behind growth of zoonotic diseases include encroachment on animal habitat, expanding human-animal contact, and climate change.
COVID-19 demonstrated the need for a multi-sector response as well as strong partnerships, Moeti said. “Outbreaks and health emergencies often spill over national borders,” she noted.
“Disease outbreaks do not respect national borders or demographics,” said Kofi Busia, director of the Department of Healthcare Services at WAHO.