Ambulances have to be disinfected with chlorine after each trip carrying suspected Ebola cases. Scene from the ambulance depot near the Western Area Emergency Response Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

WHO: Ebola Outbreak Response for the DRC is So Far Working

An Ebola outbreak has gripped parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization there have been 45 reported cases, 14 of which have been confirmed as Ebola. Of these 45 cases, 25 have resulted in fatalities.  Most concerning, the outbreak has spread from a rural precinct to the city of Mbandaka which has a population of 1.2 million and sits on the Congo river, a major thoroughfare.

Still, the World Health Organization believes the processes it put in place following the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa are capable of containing this outbreak in the DRC.

On Friday, the WHO declined to declare what is known as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” This is a bureaucratic designation that triggers a set of extra-ordinary responses to a specific outbreak. (These responses are guided by an international agreement known as the International Health Regulations.) But an outside group of ebola experts convened by the WHO today said they believed the current response to this outbreak was sufficiently robust, and that this emergency designation was not needed at this point.

This is welcome news. It is also an affirmation that the ebola outbreak response mechanisms put in place by the WHO following the 2014 west Africa Ebola outbreak are performing as intended. This includes the rapid deployment of personnel from the WHO and its partners, robust contact tracing, the rapid deployment of protective gear, the deployment of a new vaccine and working with local communities to set up treatment facilities. “We will rely on a range of prevention and curative responses to the outbreak,” WHO Director General Tedros said in a press conference today.

To those ends, the WHO says sufficient personnel are being deployed to the affected areas of DRC. The WHO also said that 4,000 doses of the vaccine arrived in the country this week and will begin to be distributed on Monday. Finally,  contact tracing to determine who might have been exposed to the virus is going well. A representative from the WHO said today  more than 532 contacts have been traced including a “high overall identification” rate for possible contacts in the city of Mbandaka. Where contact tracing gaps exist are in extremely rural villages accessible only by hours long trips on a motorcycle.

Neighboring countries including the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazzaville have been put on alert, though the WHO did not recommend any international travel restrictions to or from the DRC.

This outbreak is the first big test of the WHO’s Ebola response mechanism since its lackluster performance in 2014.  And at least for now, the WHO seems to be implementing those lessons learned.