With no definite cure, the Ebola virus is highly contagious and easily transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, contaminated objects, broken skin or mucus of infected humans, fruit bats and non-human primates (both living and deceased). Common symptoms of Ebola include fever, muscle pain, fatigue, unexplained hemorrhage and vomiting. Symptoms appear anywhere between two to 21 days after infection; the average fatality rate is around 50 percent.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one country that has been affected by the virus. Since the discovery of the Ebola Virus Disease in 1976, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced nine separate outbreaks, the ninth having been declared on May 18, 2018. As of June 19, there have been 61 total cases reported, including 28 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, this current outbreak is significantly lower than that which hit West Africa in 2014, particularly due to the utilization of “ring vaccination” and increased community public health awareness and intervention.
Ring Vaccination in The Democratic Republic of the Congo
While the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced nine Ebola outbreaks, this is the first time ring vaccination has been utilized to contain the virus. A method previously used to control smallpox, ring vaccination seeks to control an infectious disease outbreak by vaccinating and monitoring those close to an infected individual.
The WHO has deployed more than 7,500 doses of a new unlicensed Ebola vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s northwestern province of Equateur, where the outbreak occurred. The vaccine was previously tested in the context of ring vaccination in Guinea at the tail end of West Africa’s 2014 Ebola epidemic. The efficacy was found to be 100 percent with no noted safety concerns.
The vaccines were donated by the pharmaceutical company Merck, along with $1 million for operational costs from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Importance of Community Awareness
Ring vaccination cannot solve everything. Since the vaccine must be stored between negative 60 and negative 80 degrees Celsius, it is difficult to effectively transport and store, especially in remote, rural locations. Additionally, ring vaccination relies on the ability to trace, contact and follow up with those in contact with an infected individual. Local communities must be willing to help. Public outlets such as music, radio programming, phone-in programs and religious and educational institutions are being harnessed to increase awareness regarding Ebola as a medical, hygiene-oriented issue. Engraining these ideas in public culture sets the stage for future Ebola containment and prevention.
Furthermore, these public outlets function in parallel with educational work conducted by organizations such as UNICEF and the WHO. These organizations help to dispel skepticism surrounding Ebola’s legitimacy as a disease and the effectiveness of vaccines while simultaneously addressing the needs and concerns of the local community. For example, the WHO released a 12-step guide in October 2017 describing how to bury those who died from either confirmed or suspected Ebola in a way that is safe and observes local custom. This guide has become a staple aspect of how Ebola is contained in remote areas.
Acknowledging the culture of a community reaches those who are less inclined to take outbreaks seriously. Some residents still consider Ebola a product of witchcraft or a curse rather than an infectious disease and tend to turn to traditional healers for treatment instead of modern medicine. Educating the population about public health while respecting traditional beliefs supports open growth and preparedness for future Ebola cases.
Over the past decade, Ebola has become one of the most infamous viruses known to humanity. Although significant strides in treatment have been made, the virus continues to pose a threat to large populations of people. Vaccination is only truly effective when people understand its value and are aware of its benefits, but pure awareness cannot beat the virus without a form of treatment. A combination of education and treatment is critical to prevent future Ebola outbreaks.
– Katie Anastas