Is the global health community ready to stop another outbreak?
- By Laurie GarrettLaurie Garrett is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer.
In a remote forested region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ebola virus has resurfaced, killing as of this writing three people and putting another six in the hospital. This is not a drill.
In the wake of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, in which nearly every facet of international responses were found wanting, much has changed. There are experimental Ebola vaccines stockpiled that have proven 100 percent effective in field trials in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization (WHO), which bore the brunt of global criticism for the world’s lackluster response to the virus’s emergence in Guinea in 2014, has created new departments, rules, and reforms aimed at improving its urgency and capacity to respond. And numerous other organizations, from the U.S. Agency for International Development to Doctors Without Borders have set up new surveillance and response systems, revamped their emergency policies, and vowed to do better “next time.” One humanitarian group, the Senegal based ALIMA, already has volunteer medical investigators in transit to the remote village.
Next time is here. It’s isolated, remote, and small — for now.
So far, matters appear much improved. Early this morning, the WHO issued emergency push messages to cell phones all over the world stating, in French, that the Ministry of Health for Democratic Republic of the Congo, “has notified the WHO and its partners of a confirmed case of Ebola.” Within minutes, the WHO began tweeting updates on its findings, and the head of the agency’s Africa regional office, Matshidiso Moeti, was dispatched to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, with a team of WHO experts.
Also encouraging, discussion began immediately regarding the small stockpile of experimental Ebola vaccines, and its possible deployment to stop spread of the virus inside Congo.
Compared to the slow pace of response in the Guinea 2014 outbreak, this reaction appears to be swifter and more efficient. About a month ago, a man stumbled into a hospital in the remote village of Likati, in the Bas-Uele region of the DRC, along its border with the Central African Republic. It is, unfortunately, normal that in deeply forested regions of impoverished villages, proper diagnosis of rare diseases and notification of various chains of authority take time. But initial scanty information indicates the first case was diagnosed, Kinshasa was notified, lab work was done, and WHO headquarters in Geneva were informed over a time span of about three weeks. Today’s announcement from the WHO follows its own laboratory confirmation of the diagnosis. And if Congolese assessment is accurate, the outbreak is limited to a handful of people.
Now the epidemiology skills of the newly reformed international response capacity will be put to the test, as teams of public health experts hit the ground, tracing all the contacts the three deceased individuals had and testing those individuals for Ebola infection. If luck and good sense have reigned, the numbers of additionally infected will be small, quarantines and vaccination will slow further spread, and the world will be able to heave a sigh of relief that the up-to-90-percent lethal Ebola virus was stopped in its tracks.
But make no mistake, this is a test of whether we are ready.
Photo credit: KATHY KATAYI/AFP/Getty Images