Congolese authorities said Thursday that soldiers and police will begin enforcing hand-washing and fever checks after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the long-simmering Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dr. Aruna Abedi, coordinator of the outbreak response at Congo’s health ministry, said soldiers and police will “force” people to take the key steps to help contain the disease that has killed more than 1,600 people since August.
“It’s not possible that someone refuses to wash their hands and have their temperature checked at a very critical moment in this outbreak,” Abedi told reporters in Goma, the city of more than 2 million where a first Ebola case was announced early this week. The major regional crossroads is on the Rwanda border and has an international airport.
The Ebola outbreak is the second-deadliest in history, according to WHO. More than 30 new cases are being reported each month in northeast Congo, which is largely a regional war zone.
WHO declared the global health emergency on Wednesday.
The epicenter is the city of Beni, where 46% of all new cases have been reported in the past three weeks, according to the WHO emergency committee studying the latest outbreak.
It was the fourth meeting of the committee since the outbreak was declared on Aug. 1, 2018.
In a statement Wednesday, the committee called the outbreak in Beni “difficult and worrisome.”
The committee reported 2,512 confirmed or probable current cases, including 136 health workers affected, and 40 deaths.
This is the fifth global emergency declaration in history. Emergencies also were declared for the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people, the emergence of Zika in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic and polio.
Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, said in a statement: “There is a very real risk that the Ebola outbreak could spread to neighboring countries, so the international community should urgently come together to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Ebola is a highly contagious virus that spreads through direct contact with body fluids. It kills about 50% of those infected, many of them by bleeding internally and externally. There is no cure or specific treatment approved for market, although some vaccines have showed promise.
The pastor who brought Ebola to Goma used several fake names to conceal his identity on his way to the city, Congolese officials said, according to the Associated Press.
WHO said that the man had died and that health workers were trying to track down dozens of his contacts, including those who had traveled on the same bus.
In addition, a sick Congolese fish trader traveled to Uganda and back while symptomatic and later died of Ebola.
WHO’s emergency committee said the challenges in combating the outbreak included gaining community acceptance of the threat, delays in detecting and isolating the virus and difficulty in tracing potential carriers in a highly mobile population.
“Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders – coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities – to shoulder more of the burden,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said Wednesday.
Local authorities are focusing on cross-border screening and screening at main internal roads and sharing the information with other surveillance teams. WHO warned against any wholesale shutdown of border crossings that it said could case major economic distress in targeted areas and stifle cooperation.
The emergency working group noted that vaccine supplies are insufficient but said Merck, the American pharmaceutical company, planned to double the supply.
Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said she hoped the emergency designation would prompt a radical reset of Ebola response.
“The reality check is that a year into the epidemic, it’s still not under control, and we are not where we should be,” she said. “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
Liu said that vaccination strategies should be broadened and that more efforts should be made to build trust within communities.
Contributing: The Associated Press