October 12, 2018 – LONDON — The rate of new Ebola cases has more than doubled since September after rebel violence in northeastern Congo caused response efforts to be briefly suspended, health officials said Thursday.
In a statement, the International Rescue Committee said it was “alarmed” that there were 33 new cases between Oct. 1 and Tuesday, versus 41 cases during all of September.
Most of the new cases have been in Beni, where experts had to suspend Ebola containment efforts for days after a deadly rebel attack. With multiple armed groups active in the region, health officials have said they are effectively operating in a war zone.
“This is a sign not only that the outbreak is not under control, but that without full engagement from the community things could get a lot worse,” said Dr. Michelle Gayer, the IRC’s senior director of emergency health.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization noted that all of the health workers who have caught Ebola in this epidemic — 19 so far — have been infected outside of hospitals or clinics, meaning that the virus is spreading in the community.
WHO has warned that the risk for Ebola’s regional spread is “very high,” pointing out that Congo’s affected North Kivu and Ituri provinces share borders with Uganda and Rwanda. WHO said the risk for international spread remains low.
Although the U.N. health agency said experts this week were monitoring more than 2,100 contacts of Ebola cases in Beni, the outbreak’s epicenter, it said it had lost track of another 40. Community fears have posed a challenge as the region faces its first Ebola outbreak.
WHO said health workers were searching for a confirmed case who left an Ebola clinic in Beni and “went missing in an unsecured area of Kalunguta.” The spread of the virus to “red zones,” where the threat of armed groups makes health efforts almost impossible, is a major concern.
Congo’s health ministry says that to date there have been 159 confirmed cases, including 87 deaths. More than 15,000 people have been immunized with a novel vaccine since this outbreak was declared on Aug. 1.
Scientists estimate there’s a 75 percent chance the Ebola virus could spread to France and a 50 percent chance it could reach UK by the end of October. The latest research analyzes the pattern of infection and airline traffic.
The consensus among health officials is now that the deadly virus is no longer just an African problem, and key to this assessment are the European Union’s free movement policy and the deceptive incubation period, allowing the person to spread the infection unaware.
France has the worst statistics out of all the European countries because the worst-hit countries in Africa are French-speaking, including Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, according to the study ‘Assessing the International Spreading Risk Associated with the 2014 West African Ebola Outbreak’.
“If this thing continues to rage on in West Africa and indeed gets worse, as some people have predicted, then it’s only a matter of time before one of these cases ends up on a plane to Europe,” expert in viruses from Britain’s Lancaster University, Derek Gatherer, said.
The next country on the list after France and the UK is Belgium, with a 40 percent chance of infection. Meanwhile, Spain and Switzerland face smaller risks of the virus breaching its borders with 14 percent.
One of the key elements in analyzing the spread of the disease is air traffic, the leader behind the research, Alex Vespignani, from Northeastern University in Boston told Reuters.
“Air traffic is the driver,” Vespignani said. “But there are also differences in connections with the affected countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), as well as different numbers of cases in these three countries – so depending on that, the probability numbers change.”
While Vespignani admits the model is inconclusive, and could widen to include others, one thing is certain: the probability of contracting the virus is growing for everyone, “it’s just a matter of who gets lucky and who gets unlucky.”
Despite approaching the disease with extreme caution, the World Health Organization (WHO) placed no restrictions on flights to the worst-affected countries. And while British Airways and Emirates are no longer flying there, Air France has only suspended flights to Sierra Leone – not Liberia, Guinea or Nigeria (though air crews were recently offered the option to refuse flying to those destinations).