Yellow Fever in the DRC
While mosquito bites are rarely more than a summer nuisance for the average American, they can be carriers of dangerous illnesses. This year, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is facing an outbreak of yellow fever.

By August, there were 5,000 suspected cases and 400 reported deaths across the DRC and Angola. Yellow fever is difficult to diagnose because symptoms closely resemble other illnesses and vary from patient to patient.

Fortunately, World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union announced that they have created a mobile lab to quickly diagnose and vaccinate people to stop the disease in the DRC.

The mobile lab was dispatched in mid-July with five technicians from Italy and Germany. Quick, accurate blood tests are crucial.

This mosquito-transmitted disease can become so prolific because most infected people never show symptoms, and risk exporting the illness or continuing to allow mosquitoes to spread it in crowded subtropical areas. Now tests can be done on site, which reduces the time wasted for transporting samples.

Those who develop symptoms after the incubation period experience fever, chills, aches, nausea and weakness. Unfortunately, 15 percent of people develop a serious form of the disease that leads to bleeding, jaundice, organ failure and death in 20 to 50 percent of cases. There is no cure, only prevention and palliative treatment.

The technicians have a tough job because of the sheer number of people affected by yellow fever in the DRC. Unfortunately, preventative measures like bug repellent and protective clothing only go so far against the persistent parasite.

The good news is a vaccine that provides lifelong immunity exists. To keep the disease out of the DRC, visitors are required to get the vaccine before entering the country.

The bad news is that the vaccine is expensive and the epidemic is straining the supply. Currently, there are only 6 million doses of the vaccine and it will take a year to make more. Reuters ominously reports that time and resources are not on the EU’s side in the face of this epidemic.

WHO and the EU remain positive. The mobile labs can get results to 50 to 100 people in a day. WHO is training lab technicians in DRC and Angola to continue accurate testing after the EU’s program ends.

Dr. Formerly explains, “Aside from getting patients on the right treatment, faster diagnosis helps to plan the response better, such as identifying where to conduct mass vaccination campaigns in the affected countries.”

Mass vaccinations have been effective in slowing the spread and tests will help. Without a cure, prevention is the only way to stop the disease.

The EU and WHO have been splitting each dose into fifths. While this does not provide lifelong immunity to yellow fever that the full vaccine provides, it does protect recipients for a year. The mobile lab program is a great step towards ending this epidemic.

Jeanette I. Burke

Photo: Flickr