DR Congo’s Ebola Virus Outbreak Is Six Months Old and Spreading. Here’s Why

February 4, 2019, 11:28 PM UTC

The ongoing outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo was declared six months ago, and it remains one of the most challenging public health crises in the world right now.

Ebola, which is named for the river in the DR Congo where it was first observed in 1976, is an infectious virus spread through contact with bodily fluid. The current Ebola epidemic is the 10th ever in the Congo and the worst the country has ever experienced. This Ebola outbreak is also the second worst in world history, following the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people.

More than 460 deaths have been reported in the current outbreak, and there are more than 700 reported cases confirmed so far, which puts the mortality rate well over 50%. In December, the outbreak reached Butembo, a city of over a million near the Ugandan border, and it is currently headed toward Goma, another major million-resident city that shares a busy border with Rwanda.

While use of an experimental vaccine has made some health workers optimistic about treating this outbreak, one reason the epidemic continues is misinformation that spreads among Congolese citizens wary of outsiders, according to the Associated Press. Another reason? Armed militias that target Congolese civilians and foreign aid workers make it difficult, if not impossible, for response teams to reach and work in the nation’s most rural areas, a serious issue since the beginning of this current outbreak.

Working to combat misinformation and make patients comfortable is a topic about which health officials continue to work to inform the public. In an impassioned op-ed in the New York Times in January, Doctors Without Borders field director Karin Huster wrote that treatments only work if people are unafraid to seek them out and trust public health professionals. “While promising vaccines and experimental treatments are rapidly being added to our arsenal, this technology is not a panacea,” Huster wrote, explaining that one strategy in combatting the ongoing epidemic is decidedly low-tech: relying on Ebola survivors to spend time with Ebola patients. Doctors and nurses suited up in protective gear simply seem less reassuring, and encouraging personalized contact with fellow community members is one way triage teams can build trust with patients.