The Democratic Republic of the Congo could see a resurgence of Ebola, a deadly disease that is behind the recent passing of a woman in Butembo, a city in North Kivu Province which had only in recent months declared an end to an Ebola outbreak.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Sunday said a woman died just days after showing signs of Ebola, a virus that causes severe bleeding and organ failure. Blood samples confirmed her diagnosis, though the woman died before ever learning that she was infected.
It was not immediately clear how the woman, who was married to an Ebola survivor, contracted the virus, as the case came after Eastern Congo marked an official end to the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history in June. However, WHO officials noted in a news release regarding the woman’s death that “it’s not unusual for sporadic cases to occur following a major outbreak.”
More than 70 of the woman’s close contacts have since been identified, though no additional cases have been reported yet.
“It is possible there will be further cases because the woman had contact with many people after she became symptomatic,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a Monday news conference.
“[Ebola] vaccines are being sent to the area and we hope that vaccination will start as soon as possible,” added Tedros. “WHO has sent a rapid response team to provide support as needed.”
This is the 12th outbreak in conflict-ridden Congo since the virus was first discovered in the country in 1976, and comes less than three months after an outbreak in the western province of Equateur officially ended in November. The 2018 outbreak in Eastern Congo was the second deadliest in the world, killing 2,299 people before it ended in June. That outbreak lasted for nearly two years and was fought amid unprecedented challenges, including entrenched conflict between armed groups, the world’s largest measles epidemic, and the spread of COVID-19.
Health officials worry a new Ebola outbreak could badly affect the nation’s fragile health system, especially as it faces a resurgence of COVID-19.
“While there is hope that this early identification of an infection may help with quickly containing this outbreak, back-to-back Ebola outbreaks and COVID-19 has stretched Congo’s health systems to the limit and this could put far greater strain on an already exasperated system,” said Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor at the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at Canada’s University of Manitoba and who is conducting research on survivors from the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak, the deadliest ever.
The Ebola virus is highly contagious and can be contracted through bodily fluids such as vomit, blood or semen. The virus can live in the semen of male survivors for more than three years, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, and health experts say as outbreaks become more frequent, it’s important to understand more about how it’s contracted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.