Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is expected to travel next week to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a rare trip to the country by a U.S. official as it battles what is now the second largest Ebola outbreak on record.
Redfield will make the trip with the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, according to a WHO statement.
The CDC would not confirm Redfield’s travel plans. “To protect the safety of CDC staff, including leadership, we don’t confirm travel or discuss specific locations of deployed staff members,” spokeswoman Kate Grusich said in an email.
The CDC was forced to withdraw workers from the outbreak zone last year amid security concerns in the region, the scene of intense local conflicts. Those concerns have persisted; this week, two medical groups that were running the operations in the area decided to withdraw their personnel following attacks on Ebola treatment centers.
A spokeswoman for the WHO said the itinerary for the upcoming trip is still being finalized, but a statement earlier this week from the agency said Tedros, as the director-general is called, will visit the outbreak zone — specifically two cities where the treatment centers were recently attacked and burned. This will be at least the fourth visit to the outbreak zone by the director-general.
It is not clear if Redfield will accompany Tedros to those cities, Katwa and Butembo, where most of the Ebola transmission is now occurring in the outbreak, now in its eighth month. A State Department bar on U.S. government employees working in the outbreak zone is still in effect.
Redfield did visit North Kivu, the province in northeastern DRC where the outbreak began, back in August. Later that month U.S. government employees in the region, including a small team from the CDC, were pulled back after an attack on security forces. They were not allowed to return.
To date 888 people have been infected in this outbreak and 557 have died.
In an interview in October, Redfeld said that, in discussions with other Trump administration officials, he argued that American experts should stay in the outbreak zone, despite security risks, but was overruled.
The CDC director said he would like to see “a small footprint of CDC employees” back in the area. He added: “I’d be happy to be one of them.”
CDC employees have been deployed to other parts of the country during the outbreak. The agency’s experts have spent time in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, advising the health ministry, for example.
Since this outbreak began, 168 CDC employees have been deployed to DRC, neighboring countries or to WHO headquarters, Grusich said. And other U.S.-based personnel have been working with the Congolese health ministry, providing guidance on matters such as case investigation, contact tracing, and community engagement.
More staff may be heading to DRC soon. In early February, Redfield issued a call to agency staff for volunteers for “extended deployments” to DRC, surrounding countries, and to WHO headquarters in Geneva. “We are in need of CDC staff with experience working in Africa, knowledge about Ebola, and ideally advanced French language skills,” he wrote.