Even in these early stages of the outbreak, confusion is brewing. On Thursday, Reuters reported that cases of hemorrhagic fever were reported in the outbreak area “as far back as December,” and the first deaths “were reported in January.” That’s true, insomuch as health authorities did examine a group of 15 suspected cases and 8 deaths in the same region in January and February. But their investigations weren’t conclusive. “There was no proof that it was Ebola,” said Tarik Jašarević, a World Health Organization spokesperson. It’s anyone’s guess when the outbreak actually began, although it seems likely that it was underway by April.
But there were problems in the flow of information. The investigators filed a report on March 1, but the ministry of health for the province didn’t channel that report onward, as they were meant to, according to Muyembe. It was May 8 when the national Ministry of Health notified the WHO of the two lab-confirmed cases. That delay is a blow for a country that prides itself on its ability to detect new cases of problematic diseases like Ebola. This time, the fringes of the surveillance web worked as intended, but the threads leading to the center had been severed. “It’s not usual,” Muyembe says. “We have to seriously discuss why the information was not used properly by the provincial level.”
Nonetheless, Congolese health workers, along with the WHO and international partners, are already mobilizing to address the outbreak. They are working to find people who may be infected, track down everyone they had come into contact with, and isolate and treat patients. They are also distributing thousands of leaflets and posters to ensure that local communities practice safe burials. In Congolese funerals, families and friends will dress, clean, hug, caress, and kiss the bodies of the deceased—a loving ritual that tragically allows Ebola to spread.
Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva today, Peter Salama, the WHO deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, said that personal protective equipment (like gowns, masks, and gloves) have already been deployed to the ground, and “we should have a mobile lab up and running this weekend.”
The DRC Ministry of Health is also considering whether to deploy an experimental Ebola vaccine that has proven its effectiveness in clinical trials but has not yet been licensed. The WHO suspects a decision will be made over the weekend, and meanwhile, they are preparing for a green light. They are readying the freezers and other cold-storage units that will be needed to move and deploy the vaccine. Up to 40 people who were involved in testing the vaccine in Guinea are on standby. “This is a highly complicated, sophisticated operation in one of the most difficult terrains on Earth,” Salama said.