Deadly ebola is back

No doubt, on the fringes of your reading of newspapers or listening to the news, you have heard there are new cases of Ebola in the Congo. That news is disconcerting enough. Normally, aircraft are not sterilized each flight, infected people have an incubation period, handled goods can carry the virus for weeks before it finds a new host. All this doctors and medical detectives are aware of and watching carefully. The good news is that people from the World Health Organization (WHO) are on it, trying everything they can to contain the area at risk, treat patients, stop the virus running rampant.

The bad news? The U.S. cut contributions to the U.N.’s WHO budget last year. The Washington, D.C., built-in hatred of “big government U.N. bureaucracy” causes some of the safeguards the U.N. is solely capable of undertaking to go begging. Still, the WHO is throwing everything they have at the issue. Why? Because this time it is really serious. Ebola has found a home in a boomtown called Bikoro near Mbandaka with 1.2 million people at risk. And those people are on the Congo River, a pathway through all of the region. How many people are at risk on the river banks? Over 22 million. When you get that sort of risk number, you could quickly be talking about a global explosion.

OK, so far only 23 people have died with another 65 confirmed cases. “The arrival of Ebola in an urban area is very concerning and WHO and partners are working together to rapidly scale up the search for all contacts of the confirmed case in the Mbandaka area,” WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said in a statement. But the WHO remains optimistic: “This is a concerning development, but we now have better tools than ever before to combat Ebola,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO. Meanwhile, large isolation zones have been cordoned off in Mbandaka’s main hospital, and in Bikoro. Special Ebola treatment centers are also being established in both towns, but which will only have capacity to treat 20 patients each. In the next few days, Médecins sans Frontiéres plans delivery of several tons of supplies, including medical kits; protection and disinfection kits; logistic and hygiene kits; and palliative drugs to Mbandaka. This is the ninth outbreak in the country since the discovery of the Ebola virus in the country in 1976. Last time it hit, 11,000 died and the outbreak took two years to contain. Last time the outbreak was in a very tiny village. What’s frightening the WHO people was the urban outbreak this time — in evaluating the risks of outbreaks of disease, population is everything.

So, yes, perhaps we had better give the WHO more money right now to stop this deadly virus where it is, before it spreads, because the doctors fighting on the front lines do not have all the weapons they need.


Peter Riva lives in New Mexico.