Ebola Outbreaks are the ‘New Normal’, Warns WHO

A key member of the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a stark warning about ongoing large-scale Ebola outbreaks–and other infectious disease outbreaks–in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), concluding that they are rapidly becoming a ”new normal” in some parts of the world.

Speaking to the BBC, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, said that WHO is currently tracking about 160 major disease events around the world, nine of which had reached Grade Three, WHO’s highest emergency threshold.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation where we’re responding to so many emergencies at one time,” Ryan warned. “This is a new normal, I don’t expect the frequency of these events to reduce.”

Though certainly not the only disease outbreak currently troubling health officials, the DRC’s Ebola epidemic is a prime example of this so-called “new normal”.

It’s worth pointing out that the current outbreak, while certainly not small, is nowhere near the scale of the most deadly Ebola outbreak that occurred just a few years ago. Between 2014 and 2016, an Ebola outbreak across West Africa impacted more than 28,616 people, with over 11,310 deaths. The current outbreak in the DRC sits at about 2,025 cases, but the number of Ebola-related deaths is concerning at 1,357 to date.

This makes it the second largest outbreak on record–and that might not even be the whole picture.

WHO estimates that as many as one in four cases of Ebola may be going undetected. We might mistakenly think that if people aren’t ill enough to be seeking help, then there’s no problem. Obviously, on an individual basis, any instances of the disease being mild enough not to warrant outside care is good. However, controlling Ebola’s spread in conditions where almost a quarter of cases are going unchecked is incredibly difficult. Undiagnosed cases make closing the disease’s transmission pathways — the people who are spreading the disease between communities, for example — that much more difficult.

Ryan also said at a recent press conference that Ebola is not out of control in the DRC, but it is not yet under control either. The disease vectors are not spreading wildly as they did just a few years go, but they aren’t yet shrinking much, either. “We believe we are probably detecting in excess of 75 percent of cases. We may be missing up to a quarter of cases,” Ryan added. “We must get earlier detection of cases, [and] have more exhaustive identification of contacts.”

There are signs that the infection rate is going down. Recent figures suggest that health staff are catching around 88 infections per week. That figure was at about 126 per week in April. However, just to stay on top of that, health workers are having to check about 15,000 leads per day on possible infections. Not all of those will require intervention, but that is a substantial workload for any clinical team.

The situation is twice as difficult in an area like the DRC, which is still reeling from ethnic violence last year that the United Nations believes may constitute a crime against humanity. That violence rumbles on, with attacks on health care facilities being a disturbingly frequent problem.

The issue, according to Ryan, is that there has been a “convergence” of risk factors making the DRC and other regions particularly vulnerable to major disease outbreaks. These include problems like: violence, the sheer scale of the outbreak and a lack of infrastructure.

However, broader risk factors are also at play. The world’s climate is shifting and that appears to be causing an uptick in the number of adverse weather events, including cyclones and extreme dry spells followed by torrential rains. The effects of these events, such as population displacement and broken sanitation, can create ideal conditions for diseases to spread.

Interventions like the Ebola vaccine are proving to be effective, but Ryan contends that world health powers must act swiftly, saying that the evidence shows that major disease outbreaks appear to be happening more frequently than just a decade ago. Unless we are prepared, we might miss the window in which to act to spare thousands of lives and save people from life-long health complications.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

29 comments

Alea C
Alea C4 hours ago

Back again for butterfly points.

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Alea C
Alea C4 hours ago

Back again for butterfly points.

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Isabel A
Isabel A6 days ago

It's very scary

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Diane E
Diane E8 days ago

It is now in a large Congo city, instead of previously being in the countryside.

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Diane E
Diane E8 days ago

Ebola has just reached the Congo, according to the television news tonight. I think the frontline workers are so brave.

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Alea C
Alea C9 days ago

I miss my daily causes newsletter. I wish Care2 would fix their site and start posting new ones.

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Alea C
Alea C9 days ago

Tyfs

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heather g
heather g10 days ago

The DRC health workers have an enormous workload and work in often primitive, unhygienic conditions. They deserve high praise.

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Thomas M
Thomas M26 days ago

thanks for posting

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William T
William T29 days ago

TYFS

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