Another Ebola Outbreak Puts New Vaccine to the Test

Less than two months after an initial Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, another outbreak has been declared on the other side of the country, in an active war zone.

As recently as June 2018, the spring outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was declared over, thanks to a new vaccine distributed and administered in May. Now, less than two months later, another Ebola outbreak has been declared on the other side of the country, in an active war zone.

The spring outbreak was contained with the new vaccine, leaving scientists with a sense of hope after decades of frustration caused by Ebola epidemics. For years, Ebola was thought to be too aggressive for a protective vaccination. Ebola’s aggressiveness is once again on full display as the latest strain appears to be different from the earlier outbreak.

Adding to the challenges with this new outbreak is where the cluster is centered: the North Kivu Province. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated concerns about the ability of the medical response teams to access the affected population in areas controlled by militants. In the past week, 44 Ebola cases have been reported in the region and vaccination efforts have been ongoing since August 8th.

Ebola and the DRC. This outbreak is the tenth in the Congo since the virus was discovered in 1976. Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an affected person or someone who has died from the virus. It can also be contracted when preparing primates or bats as food. DRC is over one million square miles of mostly forested lands and the large population of fruit bats is believed to be one of the biggest sources for the prevalence of Ebola.

The vaccine. The new vaccine that helped to thwart the last outbreak is being counted on to produce similar results this time; however, scientists fear that the vaccine may not work as well on this variant Ebola strain. Even though the Merck-produced vaccination has yet to receive licensing, the DRC government is approving its deployment under special regulations. Health workers are faced with the challenge of not only getting into the affected areas but also finding people who may have been in direct contact with an infected individual. Then, to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine, that same person must be tracked down after a 20-day period for testing. The follow-up requirements have been the most challenging aspect as people are migrating among the various regions as conflicts move in.

The number of Ebola outbreaks over the past few years has contributed to health officials around the world being more prepared to handle containment. Procedures include improved case management, infection prevention, effective distribution of therapies, community awareness, and the creation of safer burial procedures.

While it is too soon to determine the impact of the August outbreak, local officials are hopeful that the latest vaccine will be as successful as it was prior, and that the military conflict in the region can be overcome enough to maintain the safety and effectiveness of on-site health workers.

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