BENI, Congo (AP) — Eastern Congo marked an official end yesterday to the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, which killed 2,280 people over nearly two years, as armed rebels and community mistrust undermined the promise of new vaccines.
Thursday’s milestone was overshadowed, though, by the enormous health challenges still facing Congo: the world’s largest measles epidemic, the rising threat of COVID-19 and another new Ebola outbreak in the north.
“We are extremely proud to have been able to be victorious over an epidemic that lasted such a long time,” said Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who coordinated the national Ebola response and whose team also developed a new treatment for the once incurable hemorrhagic disease.
The announcement initially was set for April but another case emerged just three days before the Ebola-free declaration was expected. That restarted the 42-day waiting period required before such a proclamation can be made.
The epidemic, which began in August 2018, presented an unprecedented challenge for the World Health Organization (WHO), Congo’s Health Ministry and international aid groups because it was the first Ebola epidemic in a conflict zone.
Armed groups posed such a risk that vaccinations sometimes could only be carried out by small teams arriving by helicopter.
But much of the risk to hospitals and health workers came from the communities, often angered by the presence of outsiders and the amount of money being spent on Ebola as far more people died of perennial killers like malaria. Some suspected the epidemic was a political scheme, a theory that grew after then President Joseph Kabila cancelled the national elections in Ebola-affected areas.
Only a few years earlier, West Africa’s Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,000, as at that time there was no licenced vaccine or treatment. By the time of the eastern Congo outbreak there was not one but two new experimental vaccines to ward off the disease that kills about half its victims.
After more than a quarter century of conflict, though, distrust of government health workers and other outsiders was exceptionally high in eastern Congo. Many residents initially outright refused the vaccine, fearing it would harm them.