Conference Coverage

Ebola outbreak: WHO/OCHA call for more aid, better security



The continuing outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was the subject of a special United Nations high-level event organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It was comoderated by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, and Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

An image of a decontamination procedure during the 2014 West African Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak. CDC/Athalia Christie

The man at left is undergoing a decontamination procedure during the 2014 West African Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak.

The DRC Ebola outbreak has drawn continuing concern and was highlighted by an even greater feeling of urgency as a case of Ebola was reported to have spread to Goma, the largest city in the eastern part of the DRC and a major trading port “on the eve of the conference,” according to one speaker.

That same infected individual – a priest arriving by bus to the city from an affected area – died of the disease the day after the conference concluded, according to the DRC authorities.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Lowcock stressed the importance of coordinating international efforts with the on-the-ground responses being carried out under the direction of Oly Ilunga Kalenga, MD, the DRC’s Minister of Public Health, who was also present and spoke at the meeting. Dr. Kalenga resigned his post on July 22, 2019.*

Mr. Lowcock stressed three points in particular that make for unique changes to the current response, compared with the earlier outbreak of 2014-2016.

First, in the previous outbreak in West Africa, “we didn’t have the vaccine and we didn’t have some of the successful treatments” that are currently available. Furthermore, more than 160,000 people have now been vaccinated and “the vaccine has a high degree of effectiveness.” This is an asset compared to the previous situation, he stated.

In his second point, he warned that the outbreak in the DRC “is taking place in an insecure and complex area with multiple armed groups present and large-scale preexisting humanitarian needs. Special interests distort the context. A history of disaffection with national authorities and foreigners generates distrust and makes the response more complicated. And one manifestation of that is attacks against health facilities and health care workers.” He added that “two more of our colleagues, trying to be part of the solution,” were killed in the past few days before the meeting. “Therefore, security for the response is of absolutely paramount importance, and we are trying to strengthen the way the UN family supports the government’s own security.”

The third major difference from the West Africa outbreak, Mr. Lowcock pointed out, was the issue of money. There was more than $2 billion in international support available for that earlier response. However, “what we have available for us in the DRC is just a small fraction of that. Donors released funds early on ... but much more is needed.” He warned that the cost of reaching zero cases must not be underestimated, and that the fourth strategic response plan for this outbreak, currently under development, “will be budgeted at a much higher level than the previous three plans, and that’s because it’s our assessment that we need a bigger, more comprehensive response if we’re to get to zero cases than we’ve had hitherto.”

In fact, he said, “unless there is a big scale up in the response, we’re unlikely to get to zero cases.”

The meeting also featured speakers outlining more local aspects of the response and discussing how international workers were coordinating more and more with local authorities and health practitioners in order to deliver health care on the ground while attempting to avoid the distrust created in the past, while still ensuring security for foreign personnel.

Commenting on the issue of security, Rory Stewart, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development, described how a major DRC Ebola treatment center was attacked and burned by military insurgents, but is now rebuilt. He said that, while there have been some improvements and reasons to be hopeful, “this isn’t a moment for complacency; [the situation] is literally on the knife-edge.” He added: “If you go into that treatment center now, you will see that, although there are very good medical procedures, there are really, really worrying security procedures. The entire protection for the medical staff consists of a small square of sandbags about the height of this table [he raised his hand just above the standard conference table he was sitting at], behind which the doctors and nurses are supposed to hide if armed men get into the compound.”

In his presentation, David Gressly, the UN Emergency Ebola Response Coordinator (speaking by video from the DRC), stressed the need to cooperate with local authorities and to build local trust, stating that “the UN is putting together a tight, disciplined, coordinated system for rapid response and operational adjustments so that we can shift from chasing the disease to getting ahead of it. We need to quickly detect cases ... that have moved into areas of risk to stop the transmission early.”

Matshidiso Moeti, MD, WHO Regional Director for Africa, added in her presentation: “We’ve identified nine high-risk countries. Among those, Burundi, South Sudan, and Uganda face the highest risk and require our concerted and continued efforts.” She said that more than 10,000 health care workers in areas of high risk have so far been vaccinated against the disease.

In his concluding statement, Dr. Kalenga described the current state of affairs in his country with a modicum of hope. “A community that has been told it has a case of Ebola is a community that is traumatized by the very announcement of this epidemic. With time, the community has learned to face up to this epidemic differently. In some villages we are given a very different welcome than before. ... The villagers ask: ‘What should we do to make sure the Ebola case is the only one? The first and the last one?’ Throughout this epidemic, we have seen the people become more aware, and a certain acceptance of the very difficult and lethal diagnosis. ... So we have seen that work in the community has been maturing and bearing fruit.”

However, he pointed out, “there is a whole debate around the area of vaccinations, and we do need to close down this debate. At this point in time, we have a vaccine that is highly effective, a vaccine that is accepted by the population, after whole periods of mistrust. So we’ve come to a point in time when the population is accepting a vaccine, a vaccine that works, so we decided to no longer open the debate on vaccines and vaccination. ....We don’t want contradictory messages going out here, we don’t want different schemes going out. ...We have an effective weapon, we have an effective molecule. Let’s focus on that. Let’s all go in the same direction,” he concluded.

On July 11, an announcement by DRC officials stated that Merck’s rVSV-ZEBOV would be the only vaccine that will be used during the current Ebola outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, and that no other clinical vaccine trials to be allowed in the country so as not to confuse the population.

In that same announcement, the DRC reported that, since the beginning of the epidemic, the cumulative number of Ebola cases was 2,451, of which 2,357 were confirmed and 94 probable. There were 1,647 deaths (1,553 confirmed and 94 probable) and 683 people who survived. An additional 364 suspected cases were under investigation.

*Updated Aug. 1, 2019.

SOURCE: United Nations WHO/OCHA Webcast and Media Stakeout. July 15, 2019.

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