A health worker administers an Ebola vaccination in the port city of Mbandaka, in the DRC, on May 21. Picture: REUTERS
A health worker administers an Ebola vaccination in the port city of Mbandaka, in the DRC, on May 21. Picture: REUTERS

Kinshasa — On Tuesday, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officially declared the end of an outbreak of Ebola, bringing the curtain down on a 10-week re-emergence of the disease, which claimed 33 lives.

Health minister Oly Ilunga declared the epidemic over in a statement, saying there had been no new confirmed cases during 42 days of observation.

The outbreak — the ninth in the DRC since 1976 — began in the remote northwestern area of Bikoro, where the first cases were recorded on May 8.

The news triggered a wave of international concern, which increased after cases emerged in the city of Mbandaka, a city and transport hub on the Congo River with a population of more than one-million.

For many experts, that ranked among worst-case scenarios — contagious disease in an urban setting is far harder to contain than in the countryside, especially in a poor country with a fragile health system.

The same strain of the highly contagious disease struck the West African states of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2013-15, killing more than 11,300 people. "In total, after verification, the national co-ordinating committee recorded 54 cases [of Ebola], comprising 33 deaths and 21 survivors," Ilunga’s statement said. A previous toll, issued by the ministry on July 20, had said 29 people had died.

The UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO) came under fire for bungling the response to the West African outbreak, and vowed to overhaul its rapid-response effort.

It immediately rushed support to the DRC in the form of clinical care, protective gear and emergency medical facilities and mobilised $2m in fast-track financing.

It also provided a vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV, which had proved to be highly effective in trials during the West African pandemic, when it was tested as the outbreak was waning. The vaccine has yet to be licensed and has to be kept at extremely cold temperatures, which adds to the challenge of distributing it in poor, hot countries.

However, data from the trials suggested it was safe as well as effective, and thousands of frontline health workers received the jab.

"The WHO moved quickly and efficiently," Matshidiso Moeti, the agency’s regional director for Africa, said in a statement.

"We also demonstrated the tremendous capacity of the African region. More than three-quarters of the 360 people deployed to respond came from within the region. Dozens of experts from Guinea spent weeks leading Ebola vaccination efforts here, transferring expertise that will enable the DRC to mount an effective response both within its borders and beyond."

One of the world’s most notorious diseases, Ebola is a virus-caused haemorrhagic fever that, in extreme cases, causes fatal bleeding from internal organs, the mouth, eyes or ears.

It has a natural reservoir in a species of tropical African fruit bats, from which it is believed to leap to humans who kill and butcher the animals for food. Transmission among humans then typically spreads through close contact with the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of someone who is sick with Ebola or has recently died.

The average fatality rate is about 50%, varying from 25% to 90%, according to the WHO.

In the absence of a tried-and-tested arsenal of drugs to treat Ebola, health workers use time-honoured techniques of quarantining patients to control its spread.

The methods require rigorous protection of nurses, doctors and ancillary staff, who have to wear a full-body plastic gown, gloves and a facemask and are sprayed with disinfectant after contact with patients.

The countdown to declare the latest outbreak beaten began in late June after no new confirmed cases were recorded.

Under international guidelines, 42 days have to pass, representing two incubation periods of the virus.