Ebola and measles, plus Covid-19, give Africa a pandemic triple-whammy

The Democratic Republic of Congo is fighting Ebola, measles and coronavirus outbreaks, the WHO said on Thursday.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is fighting Ebola, measles and coronavirus outbreaks, the WHO said on Thursday.
Image: Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

The coronavirus is only one of three life-threatening viruses affecting African countries at the moment, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) director for Africa, at a briefing on Thursday.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is currently battling the world’s biggest outbreak of measles and an 11th outbreak of Ebola — at the same time as Covid-19.

“Ebola’s emergence in the Équateur province shows that viruses do not take break,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seated in front of a display of the world’s flags.

But it is not all bad news: the DRC and the WHO also announced an end to the 10th Ebola outbreak in three eastern provinces.

“Today is a joyous occasion. We are delighted to celebrate the end of the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo,” said Ghebreyesus.

“Over 1,100 people who contracted Ebola have survived ... Rhe rapid rollout of a highly effective vaccine saved lives [and] effective treatment dramatic lowered mortality,” he said, commending the DRC government for leading a team effort to control it.

He warned, however: “We must resist complacency. The world’s largest measles outbreak is [taking place] in the DRC.”

Moeti said the need to engage with communities at a grassroots level was one of the most important lessons learnt from Ebola outbreaks.

“This is extremely relevant for Covid-19 when we are asking people to practise certain behaviours like wearing a mask and washing their hands,” she said.

“One of the great lessons we learnt was how to innovate in the middle of a pandemic ... discovering new therapeutics, a new vaccine being deployed at the same time data was being gathered.”

Ebola also highlighted the need to invest in the resilience of health systems when there was no outbreak under way, she said.

Covid-19 is expected to strain the health systems of African countries, where cases are rapidly rising. The continent had 324,696 cases and 8,618 deaths by Wednesday, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Ten African countries are responsible most of the new infections. “Certainly SA is leading, with over 50% of cases there. This is similar in Nigeria, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Zambia,” said Moeti.

“We think the South African government has done absolutely the right things, intervened early, testing, also very comprehensive lockdowns ... then it was confronting a very common issue - the need to balance [lives and livelihoods].”

Prof Jean-Jacques Muyembe, director-general of the National Institute for Biomedical Research in the DRC - and the man who helped discover Ebola and develop some therapeutic treatments to the disease - said 800 tests a day were being conducted.

“At the same time, we are encountering difficulties: some people do not understand this is a dangerous epidemic and that it exists in the Congo. We are improving communications and equipping community leaders to convince them,” said Muyembe.

The WHO director-general supported the need to work with communities and adopt a comprehensive approach to control Covid-19.

“From the rate of the acceleration of the coronavirus now, I think it’s highly likely that this virus will live with us for a long time ... We need to prepare ourselves to live with the virus and have long-term solutions.”

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