The director-general of the World Health Organization said Thursday that health officials are making progress against the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and that the footprint of the outbreak zone is actually contracting.
The cautiously hopeful remarks from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who visited the outbreak zone last week, came just hours after the most recent attack on an Ebola treatment center, one in a series that has plagued efforts to bring this outbreak, now in its eighth month, to an end.
As of Wednesday, there have been 927 cases in the outbreak and 584 deaths, making this the second largest Ebola outbreak on record. But Tedros, as he is known, said he is convinced the Congolese government and the international partners working on the response will get the job done.
“Their dedication is unparalleled,” he said during a Geneva press conference. “The global community must stay the course.”
His optimism is not universally shared. Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of the medical group Doctors Without Borders, criticized the Ebola response efforts last week, insisting that the current approach was failing to bring the outbreak under control. The group withdrew its staff from two cities in the DRC, deeming it too dangerous to stay, after attacks last month on Ebola treatment centers that Liu’s organization was operating.
“We’re not sure that if we keep doing what we’re doing [it] will lead us to the end of things,” Liu said during a press conference.
Tedros did not mention Liu by name, but he did object to suggestions that the outbreak response is failing. He noted the average weekly case count has dropped from 50 in January to 25.
The virus has not as yet spread to other parts of the Congo or to neighboring countries, which have prepared for that possibility by vaccinating health workers at facilities near the border they share with DRC. And within the outbreak zone, transmission has been contained in a number of locations, Tedros said, with Butembo and Katwa remaining as active hot spots.
The latest Ebola facility to be burned, on Thursday, was a transit center located in Biena. Transit centers are facilities where people suspected of having Ebola wait for their test results.
The director-general said the outbreak response has to strike a delicate balance, protecting its workers but also working to gain the trust of the community. The violence directed at the Ebola response facilities are actually attacks on the affected communities, Tedros said. He described the attackers as people who only know violence.
“They don’t understand the language of political settlement or negotiation,” said Tedros. “The only language they know is just shooting.”
The WHO has projected it will take several more months at least to stop this outbreak. In the meantime, it has become harder to raise money for the effort. Of the estimated $148 million needed for the first six months of 2019, only $31 million has come in and another $58 million has been pledged. That leaves a gap of nearly $60 million, the director-general said.
There is no option but to stop the virus, he warned.
“To be honest, leaving the area is not an option. Evacuation is not an option,” Tedros said. “We will lose what we have gained so far. And not only that, the virus will get a free ride to spread aggressively.”