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The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ended thanks to vaccine distribution efforts

By Peter Yeung

A health care worker giving an Ebola vaccine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

JC Wenga / Anadolu Agency via Getty

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) has officially declared an end to its 11th Ebola outbreak almost six months after it began. This is the first time in years that the vast Central African country has been free of deadly hemorrhagic fever.

Eteni Longondo, Minister of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the World Health Organization (WHO) announced this on November 18 after no new cases had been recorded in the country’s western Equateur province for more than 48 days. There were 55 deaths and 75 people in this outbreak, who had recovered from 119 confirmed and 11 likely cases.

The latest outbreak was announced on June 1, just before the Democratic Republic of the Congo called for the end of a separate Ebola epidemic – hundreds of miles away in the east of the country – that killed 2,280 people in almost two years. The two virus strains were not related according to genetic sequencing analysis.

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The most recent outbreak, which spanned long stretches across dense rainforests and remote waterways as well as busy urban areas, was halted thanks to vaccine storage technology from the “cold chain” and community health workers who vaccinated 40,000 people who were at high risk insisted on contracting the disease, experts say.

“The geography was very difficult in terms of accessibility,” says Ngoy Nsenga of the WHO. “It took some serious logistics and that’s why this ultra-cold chain technology was very important.”

Known as Arktek and originally developed by Global Good, a US technology company, the cylindrical “Super Thermos” devices can store 500 doses of vaccine at -80 ° C for up to a week without an external power source. This is in line with the cold temperature requirements of the Merck Ebola vaccine and Pfizer’s new Covid-19 vaccine, which is well suited for vaccination in countries with lower incomes and less developed infrastructure.

“But there were so many factors in managing the outbreak,” says Nsenga. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo is gaining experience in fighting epidemics and WHO has learned to respond as quickly as possible.”

Bob Ghosn of the International Union of the Red Cross (IFRC) says working with local communities has been critical to success.

“Community engagement is key to stopping any outbreak,” says Ghosn, who helped set up a team of 1,000 IFRC community workers in Equateur. “We’re much better at it. Top-down messages don’t work on their own – covid-19 has proven that. “

However, experts warn that the risk of another Ebola outbreak remains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – in addition to the 11 since 1976. The disease, which can cause uncontrollable internal bleeding, is zoonotic and believed to have originated from a species of bat.

Natalie Roberts of Doctors Without Borders in France says future efforts are likely to improve through the use of monoclonal antibodies – laboratory-made molecules that can boost the immune system.

“Because of the remoteness of this outbreak and other limitations, we couldn’t use it as often as we wanted,” she says. “But they are very effective in the early stages of the disease.”

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