Ebola death toll in east Congo outbreak climbs above 2,000

FILE PHOTO: A health worker fills a syringe with Ebola vaccine before injecting it to a patient, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

By Djaffar Al Katanty and Aaron Ross

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – The death toll from Democratic Republic of Congo’s year-long Ebola outbreak has climbed above 2,000, government data showed on Friday, as responders battle to overcome community mistrust and widespread security problems.

The death in neighboring Uganda of a 9-year-old girl who had tested positive for the virus after entering the country from Congo underscored the challenge medical teams face containing the disease in border territory with a highly mobile population.

The government team overseeing the response said the number of confirmed and probable cases had also hit a milestone of more than 3,000 in what has become the second-worst epidemic of the virus on record.

Despite the development of an effective vaccine and treatments, health workers have struggled to stop the virus spreading in remote and conflict-hit areas of eastern Congo, where many locals are wary of the response effort.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organization said the latest Uganda case highlighted the border authorities’ skill at detecting and isolating potential sources of transmission.

“This case was picked up at the border,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said at a briefing in Geneva. “The people who are at the borders have the expertise.”

This is Congo’s 10th Ebola outbreak, but it is the first in the densely forested hillside provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, where militia-led violence and ethnic killing have undermined security in certain areas for decades.

The WHO declared the epidemic an international health emergency in July – only the fifth outbreak to warrant this status since the system was introduced in 2005.

The authorities have since come up against new fronts in their fight to contain the virus, testing the reach and flexibility of responders.

Health workers confirmed the first cases in South Kivu province on Aug. 16. Soon after, a woman contracted the virus in a remote, militia-controlled territory in North Kivu, hundreds of kilometers away from other known cases.

“The response is being spread too thin chasing new cases at the expense of the longer-term community engagement that is crucial if we’re ever to hope of being Ebola free,” Oxfam’s Congo Director Corinne N’Daw said in a statement.

Despite the virus spreading to new areas, the past week’s transmission rate was little changed from that of the past month and a half, which has seen an average of 77 new cases per week, according to the WHO.

Last week the WHO voiced concern about the widening geographic reach of the disease, but confirmed the virus had not gained a foothold in the major city of Goma, even after four cases were recorded there in July and early August.

Goma, a lakeside city of nearly 2 million people on the Rwandan border, had been on high alert for weeks after a gold miner with a large family infected several people with Ebola before dying himself.

The latest government data showed Ebola deaths reaching 2,006 and cases at 3,004.

“Two thousand deaths means that there is a problem,” said Timothée Buliga, a priest, returning home from his church in Goma. “We need to reach the point where we reject Ebola, say no and eradicate it definitively.”

Only the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been deadlier than the current outbreak. More than 11,300 people died then out of the 28,000 who were infected.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehey in Geneva; Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Hugh Lawson)

Congolese cross-border trader’s Ebola death fuels Uganda outbreak fears

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese health worker prepares to administer Ebola vaccine, outside the house of a victim who died from Ebola in the village of Mangina in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 18, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – A Congolese woman who died of Ebola this month vomited four times in a Ugandan market after crossing the border days earlier to sell fish, the WHO said, fuelling fears that the virus may be spreading beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The current outbreak of the highly infectious disease has been all but confined to Congo, killing 1,673 people there – more than two-thirds of those who contracted it – over the past year, and three in Uganda last month.

A World Health Organization panel is debating whether to declare the outbreak “of international concern”, a designation that the agency’s head suggested a case this month in the large Congolese city of Goma had made more likely.

The fisherwoman traveled across the border to Mpondwe market on July 11, according to a Ugandan Health Ministry report published on Wednesday by the WHO.

It said 19 fishmongers were listed as having had possible contact with her while another 590 could be targeted for vaccination.

The health response to the virus relies on tracking down and testing people who may have been exposed to it and vaccinating them and anybody they have had contact with.

Ugandan and Congolese officials were working to find people who might have been put at risk by the dead woman, who appeared to have used an illegal border crossing, health ministry spokesman Emmanuel Ainebyona said.

So far “no one has been found to be positive of the Ebola virus. The team is still monitoring the tested traders,” he said.

The report said health workers had not established where the fishmonger spent nights, who transported her merchandise and who cleaned up her vomit.

The Ministry and the WHO said there were currently no confirmed Ebola cases in Uganda.

The WHO’s emergency committee of international experts were meeting on Wednesday for a fourth time to consider if the 11-month outbreak constituted a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC), and will announce their decision at 1700 GMT.

A PHEIC declaration would be just the fifth in WHO history and include recommendations for international action. It could also help unlock sorely needed funds.

Last month the committee decided the potential disruption of declaring one risked causing economic harm while achieving nothing.

But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that the case in Goma was a potential game-changer since it meant Ebola might now spread among the urban population and into neighboring Rwanda.

A separate WHO report cited a very high risk for Uganda’s Arua district, which borders a Congolese area where an Ebola patient died after having had contact with over 200 people. Two deaths in Arua were under investigation.

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Nairobi newsroom; Editing by Gareth Jones and John Stonestreet)

Family sent back to DR Congo after two die of Ebola in Uganda

A health worker checks the temperature of a woman as she crosses the Mpondwe border point separating Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the ebola screening at the computerised Mpondwe Health Screening Facility in Mpondwe, Uganda June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Newton Nabwaya

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Authorities repatriated the relatives of two people who died of Ebola in Uganda back to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday, including a 3-year-old boy confirmed to be suffering from the disease, the Ugandan health minister said.

The cases marked the first time the virus has crossed an international border since the current outbreak began in Congo last August. The epidemic has already killed 1,390 people in eastern Congo.

The family sent home on Thursday had crossed from Congo to Uganda earlier this week and sought treatment when a 5-year-old boy became unwell. He died of Ebola on Tuesday. His 50-year-old grandmother, who was accompanying them, died of the disease on Wednesday, the ministry said.

They were the first confirmed deaths in Uganda in the current Ebola outbreak.

The dead boy’s father, mother, 3-year-old brother and their 6-month-old baby, along with the family’s maid, were all repatriated, the minister’s statement said.

The 3-year-old has been confirmed to be infected with Ebola. His 23-year-old Ugandan father has displayed symptoms but tested negative, Ugandan authorities said.

“Uganda remains in Ebola response mode to follow up the 27 contacts (of the family),” the statement said.

Three other suspected Ebola cases not related to the family remain in isolation, the ministry said.

The viral disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids, causing hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.

UGANDA PRECAUTIONS

Authorities in neighboring Uganda and South Sudan have been on high alert in case the disease spreads.

On Thursday, Uganda banned public gatherings in the Kasese district where the family crossed the border. Residents are also taking precautions, local journalist Ronald Kule told Reuters.

“They are a little alarmed now and they realize that the risk of catching Ebola is now real,” he said.

“Hand washing facilities have been put in place, with washing materials like JIK (bleach) and soap. There’s no shaking of hands, people just wave at each other.”

At the border, health workers checked lines of people and isolate one child with a raised temperature, a Reuters journalist said.

Uganda has already vaccinated many frontline health workers and is relatively well prepared to contain the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sent 3,500 doses of a Merck experimental vaccine to Uganda this week, following 4,700 initial doses.

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, said that he expected Uganda to approve the use of experimental therapeutic drug treatments, to be shipped “in coming days”.

Monitoring and vaccination had been stepped up, but there had been “no panic reaction” so far to the cases there.

The WHO has said it will reconvene an emergency committee on Friday to decide whether the outbreak is an international public health emergency and how to manage it.

Authorities have struggled to contain the disease partly because health workers have been attacked nearly 200 times this year in conflict-hit eastern Congo, the epicenter of the outbreak.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Omar Mohammed and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Congo Ebola death toll nears 1,000, new vaccine planned -WHO

Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) attends a news conference on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Friday it feared continued “intense transmission” of Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where deaths from a nine-month-old epidemic stood at 994 and were expected to exceed 1,000 within hours.

The WHO plans to expand vaccination with an unlicensed new Ebola vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson, in addition to a Merck vaccine already being used, said Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.

“We are anticipating a scenario of continued intense transmission,” Ryan told a news briefing.

“We haven’t exceeded the 1,000 (deaths) as of this morning but we will likely exceed that today when we see the numbers later this evening. We want to use every tool in the tool box.”

Security incidents continue to plague the response to the outbreak, with 119 since January alone, Ryan said. This curtails access and thereby slows efforts to vaccinate more than 900 people a day as well as daily checks on some 12,000 people potentially exposed to the virus, he said.

“We still face major issues of community acceptance and trust,” Ryan added.

There was a would-be assault on an Ebola treatment facility in Butembe on Thursday, he said, adding that nobody was injured and the assailants were captured.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ebola spread concentrated in Congo, not a wider emergency: WHO

FILE PHOTO: Health workers carry a newly admitted confirmed Ebola patient into a treatment centre in Butembo in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – An outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that has killed more than 700 people and is continuing to spread does not constitute an international emergency, the World Health Organization said on Friday.

Declaring the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern” would have signaled that greater resources and international coordination are needed.

The WHO’s independent Emergency Committee, which analyzed the latest data, said the disease was entrenched in several epicenters in the northeast and was being transmitted in health care settings.

It had not spread across borders to Uganda, Rwanda or South Sudan, but neighboring countries should shore up their preparedness, the experts said.

“It was an almost unanimous vote that this would not constitute a PHEIC (public health emergency of international concern) because we are moderately optimistic that this outbreak can be brought into control – not immediately, but still within a foreseeable time,” panel chairman Professor Robert Steffen told a news conference.

Dozens of new cases reported this week have been mainly in the epicenters of Butembe, Katwe and Vuhovi, said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program.

“It’s quite a focused amplification of disease in a very specific geographic area,” Ryan said.

“But the disease there has risen because of lack of access to that community, we’ve fallen behind in starting vaccination rings,” he said, referring to attacks on health centers by armed groups in February that cut-off hotspot areas.

“Vaccine is proving to be a highly effective way of stopping this virus but if we can’t vaccinate people we cannot protect them,” he added, noting that nearly 100,000 people have been vaccinated.

Experts have declared four emergencies in the past decade: the H1N1 virus that caused an influenza pandemic (2009), a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014), polio (2014) and Zika virus (2016).

Some experts expressed concern that the Emergency Committee was too narrowly interpreting WHO guidelines.

“This is a deeply concerning event, due to the pathogen itself, the total number of cases, the increase in cases just this week, and the difficulty of coordinating the response due to conflict – that needs to receive the appropriate level of attention,” health experts Rebecca Katz and Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. said in a statement.

The Ebola outbreak – by far the biggest Congo has seen, and the world’s second largest in history – was declared by national authorities in August. It is concentrated in Congo’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

It has already infected at least 1,206 people, of whom 764 have died – giving a death rate of 63 percent.

They include 20 new cases reported by the health ministry on Thursday, another one-day record after 18 on Wednesday. Two workers at the Butembo airport tested positive, it said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)

Uganda makes arrests in kidnap of American tourist and her guide

U.S. tourist Kimberly Sue Endicott poses with her guide, Jean Paul Mirenge in Uganda, April 7, 2019, in this image taken from social media. Wild Frontiers/via REUTERS

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Uganda said Tuesday some suspects had been arrested in connection with last week’s kidnap of an American tourist and her tour guide in a national park while a minister told a local TV that a ransom had been paid to free them.

Tourist Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and guide Jean Paul Mirenge-Remezo were ambushed and seized by gunmen as they drove in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the country’s southwest near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo on April 2.

It’s one of Uganda’s most visited parks, home to antelopes, lions, elephants, hippos, crocodile and leopards.

The kidnappers later demanded a ransom of $500,000. On Sunday Ugandan security officials said they had rescued the pair unharmed near the border.

In a statement on Tuesday, police said: “The joint security team actively investigating the kidnapping incident … has made some arrests of suspects, on suspicion of being involved.”

Police did not give details about the suspects but said they had been detained during “raids and extensive searches” in Kanungu district, more than 400 km (250 miles) southwest of the capital Kampala.

On Tuesday, junior tourism minister, Godfrey Kiwanda Ssubi, told NBS TV that a ransom was paid to secure the victims.

“Whatever these people (kidnappers) demanded for was paid,” Ssubi said.

“The money had to be taken … everything was done to save the lives of these people.”

Ugandan security officials had earlier refused to acknowledge the payment despite several reports in local and international media.

The United States has maintained it follows a policy of no concessions to kidnappers although the tour firm that arranged the safari told Reuters the captives were released after a “negotiated settlement” with the assistance of the US government.

In a tweet on Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump urged Ugandan authorities to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice “openly and quickly”.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Battle against Ebola being lost amid militarized response, MSF says

FILE PHOTO: A mother of a child, suspected of dying from Ebola, cries outside a hospital during the funeral in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The battle against Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo is failing because ordinary people do not trust health workers and an overly militarized response is alienating patients and families, the medical charity MSF said on Thursday.

Last week Medecins Sans Frontres (Doctors Without Borders) suspended medical activities at the focal point of the epidemic after two of its facilities were torched by unidentified assailants.

MSF’s international president Joanne Liu said the outbreak, which has killed 569 people, would not be beaten unless the community trusted the authorities and were treated humanely.

“The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic,” Liu told reporters in Geneva.

Ebola responders were increasingly seen as the enemy, with more than 30 attacks and incidents against the Ebola response in the past month alone, she said.

The epidemic is in a region of Congo that is prey to armed groups and violence where officials are prone to see threats through a security lens and to use force.

“There is a lot of militarization of the Ebola response,” she said. “Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s totally counterproductive. The communities are not the enemy.”

Involvement of security and police forces merely deepened suspicions that Ebola was being used as a political tool, she said.

A spokeswoman for Congo’s Health Ministry said there appeared to be confusion about the security forces’ role.

“The police and the army are not involved in Ebola response activities and their role has never been to enforce sanitary measures,” Jessica Ilunga said.

The Interior Ministry has been asked to guarantee security, as it is unacceptable for health officials to be threatened and attacked, or for the threat of violence to stop families burying their loved ones in a dignified and safe manner, she said.

MSF was insisting on security before it returned to its damaged facilities, she said. Local officials, unlike international staffers, did not have the privilege of being evacuated for security reasons, she said.

Liu said there were still signs the outbreak – the second worst ever – was not being brought under control.

Forty percent of deaths were outside medical centers, meaning patients had not sought care, and 35 percent of new patients were not linked to existing cases, meaning the spread of the disease was not being tracked.

“Ebola still has the upper hand,” Liu said.

Villagers saw fleets of cars racing to pick up a single sick person and vast amounts of money pouring in. Some were instructed to wash their hands but had no soap to do so.

“They see their relatives sprayed with chlorine and wrapped in plastic bags, buried without ceremony. Then they see their possessions burned,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Kinshasa; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Congo records one-day record for confirmed Ebola cases

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare worker carry a coffin with a baby suspected of dying of Ebola during the funeral in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

KINSHASA (Reuters) – Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday confirmed 14 new cases of Ebola virus in its eastern borderlands, the largest one-day increase since the current outbreak was declared in August.

The outbreak of the haemorrhagic fever in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri is already the second-largest in history with 713 confirmed and probable cases and 439 deaths.

It is surpassed only by the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa, which involved over 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths and led to substantial investments in a vaccine and treatments for the virus.

Health officials have struggled to bring the current outbreak, Congo’s tenth since 1976, under control, largely due to widespread militia violence in eastern Congo which has hampered the response.

The health ministry said in a daily bulletin that nine of the new cases were in the health zone of Katwa, just outside Butembo, a city of several hundred thousand people near the Ugandan border that has emerged as the outbreak’s new epicenter. One other case was in Butembo.

The ministry also announced six new deaths of confirmed cases as well as the recovery of one patient.

(Reporting By Stanis Bujakera and Fiston Mahamba; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)

Ebola outbreak in east Congo now world’s second biggest

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker wears a protective suit as he prepares to administer Ebola patient care at The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA) treatment center in Beni, North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Fiston Mahamba/File Photo

KINSHASA (Reuters) – The Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo is now the second biggest in history, with 426 confirmed and probable cases, the health ministry said late on Thursday.

The epidemic in a volatile part of Democratic Republic of Congo is now only surpassed by the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa, where more than 28,000 cases where confirmed, and is bigger than an outbreak in 2000 in Uganda involving 425 cases.

Ebola is believed to have killed 245 people in North Kivu and Ituri provinces where attacks by armed groups and community resistance to health officials have hampered the response.

Congo has suffered 10 Ebola outbreaks since the virus was discovered there in 1976. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding, and in many flare-ups, more than half of cases are fatal.

“This tragic milestone clearly demonstrates the complexity and severity of the outbreak,” Michelle Gayer, Senior Director of Emergency Health at the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. “The dynamics of conflict (mean) … a protracted outbreak is … likely, and the end is not in sight.”

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Tim Cocks and Andrew Heavens)

Current Ebola outbreak is worst in Congo’s history: ministry

FILE PHOTO - Workers fix an Ebola awareness poster in Tchomia, Democratic Republic of Congo, to raise awareness about Ebola in the local community, on October 9, 2018. Picture taken October 9, 2018. WHO/Aboulaye Cisse/Handout via REUTERS

KINSHASA (Reuters) – The current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the most severe in the country’s history with 319 confirmed and probable cases, the health ministry said late on Friday.

The hemorrhagic fever is believed to have killed 198 people in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, where attacks by armed groups and community resistance to health officials have complicated the response.

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese health worker prepares to administer Ebola vaccine, outside the house of a victim who died from Ebola in the village of Mangina in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 18, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese health worker prepares to administer Ebola vaccine, outside the house of a victim who died from Ebola in the village of Mangina in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 18, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

Congo has suffered 10 Ebola outbreaks since the virus was discovered near the eponymous Ebola River in 1976.

“The current epidemic is the worst in the history of DRC,” Jessica Ilunga, a spokeswoman for the ministry told Reuters.

With over 300 cases the epidemic also ranks as third worst in the history of the continent, following the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa where over 28,000 cases were confirmed and an outbreak in Uganda in 2000 involving 425 cases.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday that security represented the primary challenge in the current epidemic, followed by community mistrust.

“When there is an attack, the operation actually freezes. So we hold the operation. And when the operation stops, the virus gets advantage and it affects us in two ways,” he told reporters in Kinshasa.

“And one is catching up on the backload. Because when operations are stopped, there is always a backload of vaccinations or contact tracing. And the other, the second problem, is that more cases are generated because we can’t vaccinate them,” he said.

The confirmation of new cases has accelerated in the last month and an emergency committee of World Health Organization experts said in October that the outbreak was likely to worsen significantly unless the response was stepped up.

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Hugh Lawson)