Democratic Republic of Congo, WHO grapple with both Ebola, COVID-19

United Nations' health arm runs short of $83 million to fight Ebola outbreak

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Friday 17 April 2020

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) grappled with two global health emergencies: The Ebola virus disease and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also faced a significant challenge, as it ran short of at least $83 million to contain the Ebola outbreak in the DRC, said to be one of the poorest countries in Africa, according to several experts.

The DRC — with 2,266 deaths and 3,456 Ebola infections as of April 12, 2020, according to the country’s health ministry — suffered from the world’s second largest outbreak on record, since August 1, 2018.

The outbreak in the country continued to be a public health emergency of international concern, said the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee for Ebola, in a meeting with its parent body on April 15.

The committee pointed this out even as the DRC planned to announce the end of the worst outbreak of the disease on April 12. Masika was earlier said to be the last person in the DRC confirmed to have contracted the disease.  

Close to being Ebola-free

The emergency committee, however, said the DRC made tremendous progress in containing the Ebola outbreak under trying circumstances.

There were no confirmed cases reported in the country for 54 days until April 10. 40 days passed since the last person was discharged from treatment after testing negative.

There were, however, two deaths and three confirmed cases in Beni city, as of April 13.

More cases to emerge, warns WHO

Unidentified sources of infection for the patients, a low alert rate for suspected cases and conflicts around the city made it likely that additional cases may soon emerge, according to the emergency committee.

“Flare-ups are expected at the tail-end of Ebola outbreaks. We have to anticipate and be prepared for additional small outbreaks,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Risk assessment will continue, keeping the possibility of more infections in mind, the committee said, adding that priority will also be given for vaccinations in Beni.

The region had approximately 6,000 doses of the vaccine.

COVID-19 challenge

The DRC had 267 confirmed cases and 27 deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak on April 16, with local transmission of the disease reported, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of cases was likely higher, since testing was limited and the disease asymptomatic.

The containment of the Ebola outbreak was affected by COVID-19, the WHO indicated in the meeting with its emergency committee.

Vaccine pipeline

The WHO warned the committee about an adverse impact on the vaccine pipeline in the DRC due to limited flight ability, as a result of an almost worldwide lockdown due to the pandemic.

The country was under a state of emergency since April 24, 2020 and its borders were closed, following other African nations that imposed strict measures.

Shortage of funds and manpower

The WHO also told the committee about the lack of funds to deal with the outbreak. The United Nations’ health arm said it did not receive adequate funding since the beginning of 2020 and was forced to use emergency funds for containing the Ebola outbreak.

The WHO did not receive any financial support since December 2019. The human resources of the DRC, WHO and its partners were, thus, challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Nations Children’s Fund raised concerns in March over the diversion of available national health capacities and resources to fight the spread of COVID-19. 

Global funding for WHO

The committee emphasised the need for sufficient global funding for the WHO and raised concerns over the United States’ decision to cut funding for the international health organisation.

It also recommended key measures:

  • Intensification of surveillance activities
  • Expansion of the use of vaccines in high-risk populations
  • Strengthening primary healthcare and risk communication

Countries at risk of the Ebola disease were advised to prepare for future outbreaks, while continuing to utilise and strengthen their capacities for other health emergencies.

The emergency committee also advised the WHO to establish and maintain a global stockpile for Ebola vaccines.

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