24.09.2020

Mass vaccinations will not stop Ebola outbreaks after DRC fears

Mass vaccinations will not stop Ebola outbreaks, scientists have warned amid fears the virus could reach epidemic levels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Health officials in the African country have already confirmed six cases of the deadly virus, considered one of the most lethal known to science.

But it is suspected 17 people have died from Ebola – and the Congo Health Ministry has already warned that ‘our country is facing another epidemic’.

Scientists fear it is a ‘public health emergency’, as an Ebola pandemic killed at least 11,000 as it decimated West Africa between 2014 and 2016.

All nine countries that neighbour DRC have been alerted over the possible spread of Ebola – and international aid teams have been flown into the country to help.

But a new Kent University study claims a mass vaccination programme won’t help to control the fresh outbreak, which experts worry could quickly spread.

 Health officials in the African country have already confirmed six cases of the deadly virus, considered one of the most lethal known to science (pictured, Red Cross workers carrying a corpse out of a house in Sierra Leone during the Ebola pandemic of 2014-16)
 Health officials in the African country have already confirmed six cases of the deadly virus, considered one of the most lethal known to science (pictured, Red Cross workers carrying a corpse out of a house in Sierra Leone during the Ebola pandemic of 2014-16)

Professor Martin Michaelis and colleagues examined the prospects of a major Ebola campaign to dole out jabs to at-risk patients by looking at 35 old studies.

Writing in the Frontiers in Immunology, they revealed that controlling an outbreak of the virus depends entirely on surveillance and the isolation of cases.

At least 80 per cent of the population would have to receive the vaccine to establish herd immunity, as the average infected patient passes it onto four other people.

But, Professor Michaelis and colleagues pointed to a trial during the Ebola pandemic, which showed less than half of patients were given a experimental jab.

Currently, there are no vaccines to protect patients against Ebola – and scientists are unsure if any of the ones under investigation will work in the long-term.

Doling out vaccines to populations would also be ‘costly and impractical’, Professor Michaelis and colleagues claimed, as many people at risk live in remote, rural areas.

Where is the outbreak happening?

The new outbreak is occurring in the northwestern town of Bikoro – which is around 324 miles (522km) north of the capital Kinshasa.

In the past 24 hours, it has emerged cases of a haemorrhagic fever – believed to be Ebola – have been reported since December, with deaths in January.

However, the Congo Health Ministry only confirmed the outbreak two days ago, and revealed two people had been struck down by the virus.

Local health chiefs in Bikoro, in the Equater province, with a population of 8,000, today confirmed four new cases of Ebola, including two hospital workers.

But the World Health Organization warns there has been 21 suspected cases of an Ebola-like fever and 17 deaths since the start of April.

Tests are yet to confirm if all of those patients had Ebola – but officials suspect it is likely, due to the virus being endemic in the DRC.

They warned it was a 'public health emergency' (a health worker is pictured spraying a colleague with disinfectant during a training session for Congolese health workers to deal with Ebola four years ago)
They warned it was a ‘public health emergency’ (a health worker is pictured spraying a colleague with disinfectant during a training session for Congolese health workers to deal with Ebola four years ago)

Has the DRC been struck by Ebola before? 

DRC escaped the brutal Ebola pandemic, which was finally declared over in January 2016 – but it was struck by a smaller outbreak last year.

Four DRC residents died from the virus in 2017. The outbreak lasted just 42 days and international aid teams were praised for their prompt responses.

Health experts credit an awareness of the disease among the DRC population and local medical staff’s experience treating for past successes containing its spread.

The country’s vast, remote geography also gives it an advantage, as outbreaks are often localised and relatively easy to isolate.

Bikoro, however, lies not far from the banks of the Congo River, considered to be an essential waterway for transport and commerce.

Further downstream, the river flows past Kinshasa and Brazzaville, capital of Congo Republic – two cities have a combined population of over 12 million people.

Named after the DRC’s Ebola river 

The new outbreak is is the country’s since the discovery of the killer virus, which was named after the Ebola river in the north of DRC, in 1976.

The Congo Health Ministry said on Tuesday: ‘Our country is facing another epidemic of the Ebola virus, which constitutes an international public health emergency.

‘We still dispose of the well trained human resources that were able to rapidly control previous epidemics.’

Neighbouring countries alerted

Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and the Republic of Congo – which border the DRC – have all been alerted.

While Kenya – which doesn’t border the country – yesterday issued warnings over the possible spread of Ebola.

Thermal guns to detect anyone with a fever have been put in place along its border with Uganda and at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Concerned health officials in Nigeria, which also doesn’t border the DRC, have put similar measures in place to keep its population safe.

International aid teams deployed 

The WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Provincial Division of Health traveled to Bikoro earlier this week in an effort to stem the outbreak.

Health chiefs stated on Tuesday a team of epidemiologists, logisticians, clinicians, and other infection experts will be deployed to the DRC.

The WHO has released £738,000 ($1m) from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies to support response activities for the next three months.

Dr Peter Salama, WHO deputy director general, said on Tuesday that it is urgently working to ‘reduce the loss of life and suffering’ from the Ebola outbreak.

Ebola is often fatal if untreated – around 50 per cent of patients die. It is transmitted to people from wild animals and can be spread from human to human.

WHAT IS EBOLA AND HOW DEADLY WAS IT?

Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, killed at least 11,000 across the world after it decimated West Africa and spread rapidly over the space of two years.

The pandemic was officially declared over back in January 2016, when Liberia was announced to be Ebola-free by the WHO.

The country, rocked by back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2003, was hit the hardest by the fever, with 40 per cent of the deaths having occurred there.

Sierra Leone reported the highest number of Ebola cases, with nearly of all those infected having been residents of the nation.

WHERE DID IT BEGIN? 

An analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the outbreak began in Guinea – which neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.

A team of international researchers were able to trace the pandemic back to a two-year-old boy in Meliandou – about 400 miles (650km) from the capital, Conakry.

Emile Ouamouno, known more commonly as Patient Zero, may have contracted the deadly virus by playing with bats in a hollow tree, a study suggested.

HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE STRUCK DOWN? 

WHICH COUNTRIES WERE STRUCK DOWN BY EBOLA DURING THE 2014-16 PANDEMIC? (CDC figures)
COUNTRY CASES DEATHS DEATH RATE (%)
GUINEA 3,814 2,544 66.7%
SIERRA LEONE 14,124 3,956 28.0%
LIBERIA 10,678 4,810 45.0%
NIGERIA 20 8 40.0%
SENEGAL 1 0 N/A
SPAIN 1 0 N/A
US 4 1 25.0%
MALI 8 6 75.0%
UK 1 0 N/A
ITALY 1 0 N/A

Figures show nearly 29,000 people were infected from Ebola – meaning the virus killed around 40 per cent of those it struck.

Cases and deaths were also reported in Nigeria, Mali and the US – but on a much smaller scale, with 15 fatalities between the three nations.

Health officials in Guinea reported a mysterious bug in the south-eastern regions of the country before the WHO confirmed it was Ebola.

Ebola was first identified by scientists in 1976, but the most recent outbreak dwarfed all other ones recorded in history, figures show.

HOW DID HUMANS CONTRACT THE VIRUS? 

Scientists believe Ebola is most often passed to humans by fruit bats, but antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees could also be to blame.

It can be transmitted between humans through blood, secretions and other bodily fluids of people – and surfaces – that have been infected.

IS THERE A TREATMENT? 

The WHO warns that there is ‘no proven treatment’ for Ebola – but dozens of drugs and jabs are being tested in case of a similarly devastating outbreak.

Hope exists though, after an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, protected nearly 6,000 people. The results were published in The Lancet journal.

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