The health minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced six Ebola cases in the city of Mbandaka in Equateur Province in northwestern DRC. As of June 1, four of the six victims have died. These recent cases of Ebola represent DRC’s eleventh such outbreak since the disease first appeared in 1976.
Like most other countries, the DRC is also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, though with a relatively a small number of reported cases (about 3,500) and deaths (75) as of June 3. The two diseases are not related. Ebola is deadlier, but spreads less easily than COVID-19. The director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tweeted “This outbreak is a reminder that #COVID19 is not the only health threat people face." In the far east of the country, about 750 miles away, an Ebola outbreak that began in August 2018 is close to being declared over, but efforts to snuff it out are complicated by ongoing security crises. A deadly measles outbreak has taken the lives of over 6,000 people since 2019.
WHO already had a presence in Mbandaka owing to a 2018 Ebola outbreak that killed thirty-three people there. With the latest outbreak, the WHO team is already involved in testing for Ebola and tracing the contacts of the victims of the disease. WHO states it is augmenting its personnel in Mbandaka in the next few days.
Mbandaka is a trading city on the Congo river. Estimates of the population are around one million (official figures of little credibility are as low as three hundred thousand). Like many other African cities, the population has grown rapidly, with necessary infrastructure construction lagging far behind. Ebola is endemic in the rain forest, which is receding in the face of population pressure. Hence, regular recurrence of the disease, pending the success of vaccines, would seem to be inevitable.
This latest Ebola outbreak is a reminder of the crucial role played by the WHO is responding to disease in Africa. The DRC is one of the world's poorest countries, and parts of it are wracked by violence associated with warlordism. It is dependent on international assistance through the WHO in controlling Ebola. Whatever the organization's shortcomings, it plays an indispensable role in providing health care to people in the DRC and elsewhere.