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Written by Bernadeta Dadonaite. Animated by Cleve Jones. Additional editing by Daniel Garrahan
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The Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing an Ebola outbreak. It started in August, 2018. And to date, there have been more than 2,500 confirmed cases and 1,652 deaths. This isn't the first Ebola outbreak in Africa. But they vary in scale and in the number of fatalities.
There are five viruses that can cause Ebola - Reston, Tai Forest, Bundibugyo, Sudan, and Zaire. Bundibugyo, Sudan, and Zaire are highly pathogenic and potentially deadly to humans. But Zaire is responsible for the latest emergency in the DRC, as well as most other large outbreaks.
The first widely reported outbreak of Ebola was in 1976, in a Belgian missionary hospital in the DRC. A 44-year-old man was treated for what was assumed to be malaria. Back then, the hospital was only issued with five syringes per day. Equipment had to be reused. And without its proper sterilisation many patients became infected. Eighty-eight per cent of infected people died from a hemorrhagic illness that was later named Ebola.
Over the next few decades, Ebola outbreaks were reported in Gabon, Uganda, and Congo. And the virus continued to be endemic in South Sudan and the DRC. But it was in 2014 that the global threat of Ebola was finally recognised. What is now called the Western Africa Epidemic started in Guinea and quickly spread to the neighbouring countries.
The World Health Organisation called it one of the most challenging outbreaks we have ever faced. The 2014 epidemic was almost six times larger than all the other past and present outbreaks combined. There were more than 28,000 cases and over 11,000 deaths.
A global task force was deployed to manage the epidemic. And over two years it was contained. The current outbreak in the DRC is around the northeastern cities of Beni and Butembo. But the question remains, how big will it be? This time there are vaccines and drugs available. And the health and social services are better placed to track cases and deliver the treatment.
But the region has long suffered from internal conflicts and mistrust in political institutions. A recent study found that only 36 per cent of local people think that the outbreak has been fabricated for financial gain. And almost 26 per cent don't even believe the virus exists. Mistrust and funding issues are hampering the response. WHO officials say it could potentially take another two years to contain the outbreak.