Health organisations respond to Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Location of DRC within Africa.
Image: Rei-artur..

The World Health Organization (WHO), non-governmental aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have sent experts to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to assist local health authorities with a recent outbreak of Ebola haemorrhagic fever in Kasai Occidental province of DRC. The illness had been unidentified until laboratory test results confirmed the presence of the virus.

DRC President Joseph Kabila described the situation as being contained. "The village of Kampungu has been quarantined to prevent population movement towards Kananga," Kabila said on Thursday. Kananga is the provincial capital. "The situation is at the moment, I cannot say under control, but at least the problem has been contained very well in the area," he continued. "There is no risk that the whole country will be affected."

WHO is working closely with officials from the DRC Ministry of Health and MSF to improve local facilities in order to better contain the virus. A mobile field laboratory is to be established in order to provide rapid sample analysis and, subsequently, diagnosis of patients. There are concurrent outbreaks of other diseases, such as dysentery (Shigellosis), that have been complicating diagnoses and need to be identified as well.

Ebola haemorrhagic fever generates mortality rates in the range of 50 to 90 percent, typically. There is currently no vaccine or effective treatment for Ebola. WHO describes the symptoms of Ebola as being "characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is often followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings show low counts of white blood cells and platelets as well as elevated liver enzymes."

MSF, who now have 14 experts in DRC, arranged for eighteen tons of supplies, such as medical and sanitation material, to be delivered to the province of West Kasai. MSF indicated that the transportation of supplies from the airport to the affected areas has been a challenge, due to poor road conditions. It has taken up to three days to travel the 250 km to the outbreak area from the provincial capital city, Kananga.

A patient (non-Ebola) in a public hospital in DRC, May 2006.
Image: IRIN.

MSF experts will provide advice on sanitary burial procedures, which would include the use of body bags and spraying. Both the WHO and MSF will disseminate information to the local population regarding the transmission of the virus and measures that could be taken to reduce the spread of the disease.

The MSF emergency team coordinator in Kampungu, Rosa Crestani, described the isolation ward set up at Kampungu's health centre. "Our isolation centre is basically divided in three parts. One is completely isolated, where the sick patients are; another is where the staff dresses with the complete protection uniform and then undresses after having been in contact with the patients; and the third part is a space for disinfection in between," said Crestani. "In the coming days, we will decide with the Ministry of Health and the WHO whether we set up isolation structures in other locations of the health zone."

Neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda and Zambia have issued alerts to their citizens, warning of travel to and from DRC. Zambian Health Minister Brian Chituwo stated that all people coming into Zambia from DRC will be watched for symptoms of Ebola for up to eight hours. Chituwo noted, however that it would be unlikely for an infected person to travel into the country, as the time between onset and death is very rapid and that the symptoms are severe.

There has been a minimum of 395 people affected by haemorrhagic fever, including 160 deaths, in DRC in the past few months. Since arriving in Kampungu in early September, MSF have seen 25 patients admitted with suspected Ebola haemorrhagic fever, of which eight have died.