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New Ebola case emerges in Congo, just days before WHO hoped to declare end of outbreak

Health care workers prepare to enter a house where a woman was suspected of dying of Ebola in the eastern Congolese town of Beni in 2019. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

NAIROBI — Just two days before the World Health Organization would have formally announced the end of the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo, and 52 days after the most recent case was announced, director general Tedros Ghebreyesus instead announced a new case of the deadly virus.

The unexpected news means the outbreak, which began in August 2018 and has killed more than 2,200 people, will go on for at least a couple more months before health workers can be sure it has been exhausted.

“At two days before the end, it is sad for us,” said Marie Roseline Belizaire, who manages part of the Ebola response for the WHO. “But we were still in response mode. And we will continue to be in response mode till the end.”

The outbreak, the 10th in Congo, is the second-worst ever, after the epidemic that swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between late 2013 and 2016. The new case announced on Friday is a 26-year-old man in Beni, a city of a few hundred thousand in eastern Congo that has been the epicenter of the outbreak for most of its duration. The man died, the Congolese government announced later Friday.

Ebola is a particularly deadly virus that has killed nearly two-thirds of those who have contracted it during this outbreak. The response in eastern Congo has been hampered by conflict, which has raged alongside the virus and often led to attacks on health workers.

Congo has 215 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, a small number of which are in North Kivu province, where the Ebola outbreak is centered. The worst ongoing measles outbreak in the world has taken more than 6,000 lives in eastern Congo over the past year.

“[The new case] is a devastating development for the communities who are also under threat from the coronavirus outbreak, in addition to ongoing conflict and displacement,” said Kate Moger, who oversees the regional response for the International Rescue Committee. “This is now a triple emergency: vulnerable populations facing ongoing humanitarian crises, the spread of covid-19 and now again potentially a re-emerging Ebola crisis.”

Ebola causes fever, bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea but spreads only through contact with bodily fluids, which means it spreads more slowly than airborne diseases.

Some studies suggest that the virus can remain present for over a year in the semen of patients who survive the disease, raising the possibility that the new case was passed on by a survivor. The new case could also indicate that transmission of the disease is ongoing but undetected by health workers.

A sustained response by the international community has succeeded in preventing the outbreak from spreading beyond Congo’s borders. Despite the long lull between the last case and the one announced Friday, hundreds of health workers remained in place.

According to Belizaire, WHO teams were still carrying out an average of 200 tests per day on both living and dead suspected carriers of the virus. She said her team was still getting at least 5,000 “alerts” per day, which come in whenever a patient exhibits any one of Ebola’s telltale symptoms, which are also common in measles, malaria and many other conditions.

“In all outbreaks, we always expect to have sporadic cases,” she said. “This is the reason why we were still vigilant.”

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