A fresh outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus disease has flared up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), just weeks before they were hoping to declare the end of another Ebola epidemic in the country's east that started in 2018. The new outbreak was detected in Mbandaka, the capital of Équateur Province in the north-western part of the country. This is the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s 11th outbreak of Ebola since the virus was first discovered in the country in 1976.

The Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo confirmed the death of five people – including one 15-year-old girl – due to Ebola in Mbandaka. The deaths occurred between May 18 and 30, but they were only confirmed as Ebola-related on May 31, according to a statement issued by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on June 1. Four additional people who contracted the virus – all contacts of the deceased and including the child of one of the fatal cases - are being treated in an isolation unit at the Wangata Hospital in Mbandaka.

As of May 31, 3,195 coronavirus cases have been reported in DRC, including 72 deaths. By far the worst epidemic affecting the DRC is measles, which has infected 369,520 people and killed 6,779 since 2019. “The resurfacing of Ebola in Équateur comes just as DRC was approaching the end of the current outbreak in the eastern part of the country, which has killed 2,134 people and infected 3,317. Équateur experienced a short outbreak from May to July 2018 during which 33 people died and 54 people were infected. Ebola has a mortality rate between 50% and 60%, but can be as high as 78% among children under five. The country is also battling Covid-19, and as of 31 May 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak has affected seven provinces in the DRC,” said UNICEF.

Ebola is a rare but severe, often fatal illness in humans. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads among people through human-to-human transmission, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Ebola virus is transmitted via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola. It also spreads via objects that have been contaminated with body fluids (like blood, feces, vomit) from a person sick with Ebola or the body of a person who died from Ebola.

The city of Mbandaka and its surrounding area were the sites for Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak, which took place from May to July 2018. “This is a reminder that Covid-19 is not the only health threat people face. Although much of our attention is on the pandemic, WHO is continuing to monitor and respond to many other health emergencies,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement.

According to the WHO, the DRCs 10th outbreak of Ebola, in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri provinces, is in its final stages. On May 14, the Ministry of Health began the 42-day countdown to the declaration of the end of that outbreak. UNICEF’s DRC representative Edouard Beigbeder, said that in the ongoing outbreak in eastern DRC, more children, proportionately, are being affected than in any previous Ebola outbreak. “So we must ensure that preventing infection among children is central to the response in Équateur,” said Beigbeder.

Experts said that new outbreaks of Ebola are expected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo given the existence of the virus in an animal reservoir in many parts of the country. “It’s happening at a challenging time, but WHO has worked over the last two years with health authorities, Africa CDC and other partners to strengthen national capacity to respond to outbreaks. To reinforce local leadership, WHO plans to send a team to support scaling up the response. Given the proximity of this new outbreak to busy transport routes and vulnerable neighboring countries we must act quickly,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa

The WHO is already on the ground in Mbandaka supporting the response to this outbreak, as part of the capacity built during the 2018 outbreak. The team supported the collection and testing of samples, and reference to the national laboratory for confirmation. Contact tracing is underway, said officials. Work is ongoing to send additional supplies from North Kivu and from Kinshasa to support the government-led response. A further 25 people are expected to arrive in Mbandaka. WHO is also working to ensure that essential health services are provided to communities despite these emergency events.

The UNICEF, through its office in Mbandaka, is on the ground to support the health authorities with the equipment necessary to disinfect the homes of the deceased and confirmed cases. The agency is also deploying 36 of its staff to work with government partners, communities, psychologists and psychosocial workers, and non-governmental organizations to assist those infected and affected by Ebola and to raise awareness among communities regarding good hygiene and behavioral practices to prevent the spread of the disease.