US official labels Ebola outbreak genuine health emergency

Ebola Volunteers
File photo of health workers in the aftermath of the Ebola virus

The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, has labelled the on-going Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a genuine health emergency which needs to be urgently contained.

Mr Azar, in a teleconference with journalists on Monday, said the situation in the eastern DRC has significant humanitarian and development relief challenges for the country and neighbouring regions.

Mr Azar had visited Kinshasa and toured an Ebola treatment centre in Butembo with a team that included Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci.

The officials were accompanied by World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, and United Nations (UN) Emergency Ebola Response Coordinator David Gressly.

Since the outbreak began last August, the US government is the biggest funder of the Ebola response, having provided $158 million in aid and $238 million in technical assistance and support for vaccine and therapeutics.

The delegation came to “assess the situation on ground,” the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

NIAID has helped pay for the purchase and distribution of an experimental Ebola vaccine, which now has been given to 220,000 people in the DRC.

Ebola outbreak

DRC has been battling one of its largest Ebola outbreaks as more than 2,000 people have died and more than 3,000 infected.

Ebola is a communicable disease. It can be spread through human to human contact, through travels, migrations and the movement of animals.

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Since the outbreak began in the DRC last August, it has continued to spread, infecting over 3,000 persons of which more than half died.

Efforts to reduce the spread of the disease and free the DRC from the scourge of the Ebola epidemic are largely slowed down by activities of armed groups in the hardest-hit towns.

However, science has been able to invent two new medications which are potent enough to cure the disease. Also, a vaccine company, Merek, has been working tirelessly to invent a vaccine for the prevention of the disease.

Donor assistance

Mr Azar said efforts need to be intensified in containing the epidemic in DRC so that it will not become an international epidemic.

“The first thing and most important thing we can do to stop its spread into other countries. We must recognise that the threat of spread into other neighbouring countries is very real with hundreds of thousands of people crossing very porous borders, this is a very real threat,” he said.

Mr Azar also tasked neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Rwanda to increase their surveillance and preparedness activities.

He said this includes screening at the borders, being ready to diagnose case with laboratory diagnostic test and having isolation facilities ready.

“It is having Ebola treatment centres ready. It is having emergency operation centres to coordinate response. It is having developed frameworks for how you integrate all partners WHO, NGOs, the United States’ CDC together to respond to that first case. The contact tracing, vaccination and application of the experimental therapeutics,” he said.

Mr Azar also pleaded with people to always present illness to healthcare centres early as this will help with quick detection of the diseases.

Funding challenge

Despite the huge work and money spent in combating the disease in DRC, international donors said more funds are still needed to stop the spread of the disease.

Prior to this visit, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, had visited DRC to meet with President Tshisekedi as well as visit the Ebola treatment centres.

Mr Guterres during his visit had called for the support of more donors to assist in the fight against the disease.

He said there was an “extremely serious” problem with funds as donor only provided 15 per cent of $278 million that is being pledged to fund the response through the end of the year.

“When there is no cash, even if there are promises, the Ebola response stops,” he said.

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