That makes five. The first was Guinea. Then, three days later on March 27, the World Health Organization reported that there were “suspected” cases of Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Months passed before the disease, which has now killed 1,427 people across West Africa, reached Nigeria in early August.
Now it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I declare an Ebola epidemic in the region of Djera, in the territory of Boende in the province of Equateur,” Reuters quotes Congo health minister Kabange Numbi saying on Sunday. But, he said, it appeared to be a different strain from the West African variety, which has hopped borders, forced quarantines from rural villages to overpopulated slums, and terrified a continent. “The epidemic has nothing to do with the one in West Africa,” the minister added.
The World Health Organization couldn’t confirm Sunday whether the two outbreaks were different strains and expected more answers on Monday. “Need to wait for confirmatory tests,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said on Twitter. “But yes there could be two different strains here, meaning two different events/outbreaks.”
A second Ebola front will further complicate international efforts to combat what has become an out-of-control outbreak in West Africa. On Sunday, it was unclear how many had died of Ebola in the northwestern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the last several weeks, a mysterious disease had reportedly riddled 592 victims with symptoms similar to Ebola, killing 70 of them. The WHO originally said the outbreak wasn’t related to Ebola. “This is not Ebola,” one WHO representative initially told Reuters late last week. But that assessment, following the analysis of eight samples, now appears shaky. Two of those samples tested by Congolese health workers had tested positive for the virus. Officials now contend 13 people had died of Ebola, including five health workers.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told the Associated Press the initial information had been the result of “miscommunication from the field.” He added on Twitter: “I was given premature information from the field.”
Either way, Congolese Health Minister Kabange Numbi expressed confidence. “The experience acquired during the six previous epidemics of Ebola will contribute to the containing of this illness,” he said.
The World Health Organization agreed. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo has confirmed an outbreak of Ebola in the remote village of Boende,” the organization tweeted on Sunday. “…The country has extensive experience with Ebola outbreaks and immediately deployed a response team with WHO and other partners to the area. The country is organizing additional tests.”
Indeed, if any country has experience with Ebola, it’s Congo. It’s where it was first discovered in 1976 by a Belgian doctor named Peter Piot — in the same regional forests of the current Ebola outbreak. There, nearby the serpentine Ebola River, were signs that read, “Please stop, anybody who crosses here may die.”
Undeterred, Piot, now 65, says he charged into the village with the audacity of a young man. “When you are 27, you have all this confidence,” he recalled in an interview with the BBC. “We systematically went from village to village and if someone was ill, they would be put into quarantine. We would also quarantine anyone in direct contact with those infected and we would ensure everyone knew how to correctly bury those who had died from the virus.”
Now, nearly 40 years and many outbreaks later, the same problems are today bedeviling Ebola-ravaged communities. When someone dies of Ebola, their body is in fact more infections than it had been in life, as explained by The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser. The WHO recommends following a procedures — body bags, bleach, protective clothes — before burying the dead underneath six feet of dirt.
That didn’t happen in Sierra Leone. And the outbreak there is believed to have begun at a single funeral of a woman who had claimed “to have powers to heal Ebola,” according to Agence France-Presse. She had tried her luck at saving some sick in nearby Guinea. But “she got infected and died,” one top medical official told the news agency. “During her funeral, women around the other towns got infected.” Afterward, the funeral’s observers spread throughout the Kissi tribal chiefdoms, “starting a chain reaction of infections, deaths funerals and more infections,” AFP reported.
And whether the current outbreak is a different strain or not — that’s exactly what experts don’t want to happen in the Congo.