TThe Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has ended. Thursday was 42 days since the last person with Ebola was discharged, double the maximum time it takes for symptoms to appear. Almost two years of hard work and community leadership in the DRC have paid off, ending the first Ebola outbreak in a conflict zone.
It is a time of celebration but not of complacency. Viruses don’t take breaks. The tenth Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may have come to an end, but on June 11, in the northwestern part of the country, it was detected on June 1. Cases appear 240 km from Mbandaka, the center of this latest outbreak.
However, Ebola is just one of the main health crises facing DRC leaders. In addition to Covid-19, the world’s largest measles outbreak is wreaking havoc, killing more than 6,850 people in less time than Ebola to claim 2,280 lives. Only half of health facilities have access to water; This is a critical determinant for the spread of infectious diseases.
Good responses last longer than outbreaks. Ebola survivors need follow-up treatment and care for complications caused by the disease. They can lose both sight and individuality. The disease unleashes fear and pain, widely affecting mental health. Ebola survivors also often face stigma and need help to reintegrate into their communities; Similar challenges with Covid-19 seem likely, with cases of discrimination worldwide.
After fighting this outbreak, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is better equipped to address the other health emergencies it still faces, including the current pandemic. The Ebola outbreak led to improvements in the public health architecture. Five new laboratories, part of a recently strengthened surveillance system, will continue to operate. Health workers trained in clinical management and infection prevention and control as part of the Ebola response are being redistributed to fight Covid-19.
But to prevent future outbreaks from posing regional threats, strengthening the health system must continue. Doctors, nurses, midwives, and other health workers need better facilities and more supplies, training, and support to do their jobs safely and effectively.
All of this requires financing, at a time when governments are allocating billions of dollars to respond to the pandemic and mitigate its impact on livelihoods and the economy. However, I appeal to donor partners to continue to show solidarity. The Covid-19 pandemic shows that borders cannot protect us and that we are as strong as our weakest link. Investments to provide clean water in Ituri and keep vaccines cold in North Kivu will help protect us all.
Because Covid-19 represents a threat to all regions of the world, the DRC offers lessons for all income countries. For example, your contact trackers should serve as global inspiration. They have used technology to overcome insecurity, swapping form folders for mobile phones to collect Ebola data, to help share information faster and avoid unwanted attention in areas where suspicions are high.
Additional courage under fire also paved the way for the success of the Pamoja Tulinde Maisha study, a randomized controlled trial, conducted as part of the Ebola emergency response. Carried out bravely even when healthcare workers were being killed, the trial established that two out of four medications gave Ebola patients a better chance of survival.
However, as important as the research on the Ebola response has been, it was essential to involve communities and influential figures, such as religious leaders and traditional healers. Communities must be respected as first responders, who can quickly detect cases and collectively figure out how to isolate patients, even with minimal resources.
The resilience and ingenuity of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is proving invaluable in reusing the Ebola response to address both new threats like Covid-19 and long-standing challenges like malaria and cholera. The Congolese people ended a devastating outbreak through an unwavering commitment to science, data and the community, and to international solidarity. Since health systems even in high-income countries are still at risk of being overwhelmed by the pandemic, leaders would do well to heed the example of the DRC.