Is Fighting Ebola The New Normal In The Democratic Republic Of The Congo?

A couple of weeks ago the Democratic Republic of the Congo reported a new case of Ebola in the Beni Health Zone in the Northeast region of the country — the country’s 13th since the virus was discovered in 1976. This is the same area where a major epidemic of Ebola raged from 2018-2020, the 10th overall in the DRC, resulting in 3,470 cases and 2,287 deaths.

Local officials, the Ministry of Health, MSF, and the WHO are all responding. As of October 24, 2021 there had been six confirmed cases. News reports suggest that the virus is closely related to the one that ravaged the area during the 10th outbreak. However, it’s not yet clear if this is because of spillover from the same animal reservoir or because of persistent infection in a survivor. The Ebola virus can persist in a recovered person in immune-protected tissues such as the eye or the testes. Other people’s exposure to these tissues is rare, but can occur, for instance during an eye surgery or sex. Since the index case in this 13th outbreak has not been identified, we can’t say whether this cluster is due to spillover or endemic disease in the human population.

All this begs the question: Is fighting Ebola now the new normal? With both spillover events and ongoing human-to-human transmission, the population of DRC has cumulatively battled Ebola for just over 900 days since the outbreak that began on August 24, 2014.

Even if we accept that Ebola is endemic in the human population, we must not become complacent. The potential for widespread regional transmission is real and any such outbreak would be devastating to local populations and possibly regionally destabilizing.

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