Thursday 20 June 2019

World is entering 'next phase' of killer diseases - WHO warns

Large outbreaks are the 'new normal' as Ebola sweeps Congo

Tragedy: A family member after the burial of an Ebola victim in Butembo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: John Wessels/AFP/Getty
Tragedy: A family member after the burial of an Ebola victim in Butembo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: John Wessels/AFP/Getty

Stephanie Nebehay

The world is entering "a new phase" where big outbreaks of deadly diseases like Ebola are a "new normal", the World Health Organisation has warned.

Previous Ebola outbreaks affected relatively small numbers of people. But the Democratic Republic of Congo is dealing with the second largest outbreak ever, just three years after the world's largest one ended.

The WHO said countries and other bodies needed to focus on preparing for new deadly epidemics.

It was also reported that roughly a quarter of Ebola infections in eastern Congo are estimated to be going undetected or found too late, a WHO expert said.

But the WHO, in a weekly update issued subsequently, said there were "early signs" of an easing of the intensity with which the virus is spreading following weeks of insecurity that curbed access to communities and interrupted vaccination.

Some 2,025 cases and 1,357 deaths have been recorded since the epidemic began in August in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu and Ituri provinces, said Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme.

It is the second-worst outbreak of the virus on record.

Some 88 infections have been detected in each of the last two weeks, down from a peak of 126 per week in April, and WHO teams are checking 15,000 suspected contacts each day for symptoms, he added.

"We believe, let me be very cautious here, we believe we are probably detecting in excess of 75pc of cases.

"We may be missing up to a quarter of cases," Dr Ryan told a news briefing in Geneva.

"We must get earlier detection of cases, have more exhaustive identification of contacts," he said.

About 90pc of people potentially exposed to the virus have agreed to be vaccinated, which has proved efficient, he said.

"It's not them that matter now, it's the 10pc that don't, because all of our cases are coming from that group."

More than 130,000 people have been vaccinated to date, Congolese figures show.

The epidemic is "not out of control, but it is certainly not under control," he said. It was spreading fast in the rural area of Mabalako and at a lesser rate in the city of Butembo.

A third of identified cases are people who died without having being admitted to Ebola treatment centres, the WHO update said.

Dr Ryan said risks to aid workers had decreased of late but noted a deadly attack on civilians earlier this week.

A local official said 13 civilians were killed late on Monday in an attack by the Allied Democratic Forces - a group thought to be linked to Isil.

Greater political engagement is needed to combat the Ebola outbreak, Dr Ryan said.

"We need the government to reach out to the opposition, we need an 'all party' approach.

"We need a single voice of leaders in Congo about this outbreak."

Dr Josie Golding, the epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust, told the BBC the world needed to get better at preparing for such outbreaks.

"With Ebola in West Africa, that was the mobility of people and porous borders - that is now the world we live in, that won't stop," she said.

Climate change could lead to more outbreaks like cholera in Mozambique after Cyclone Idai, she said. But she hoped diseases resulting from humanitarian crises would not be a new normal.

"Preparedness needs to be better, we can see movement of populations and climate change, a lot of this we can see coming, and we need more resources to plan and prepare."

Irish Independent

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