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New Ebola outbreak declared in Congo city that last saw the virus in 2018

Max Bearak

NAIROBI —Congo’s health minister confirmed the discovery of a new Ebola case in the country’s Équateur province, which last saw an outbreak of the highly deadly virus in 2018, ultimately killing 33 people there. The province’s governor, Bobo Boloko Bolumbu, spoke on national radio earlier on Monday and said there were five likely cases and that four of those infected had already died. He said the cases were found in Mbandaka, the provincial capital, which is home to more than 1 million people and is an important port city at the confluence of the Congo and Ruki rivers, which are heavily plied for trade and transport.

The World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said later on Monday that six cases had been identified by Congo’s health ministry. He said the WHO’s response was already underway.

No cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Mbandaka, although more than 3,000 have been confirmed across Congo. The coronavirus and Ebola are unrelated. Ebola, which is endemic to Africa’s tropical rainforests, is transmitted only through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids and manifests as a hemorrhagic fever accompanied in severe cases by vomiting and extensive internal bleeding.

Congo has grappled for almost two years with a separate Ebola outbreak in its northeastern provinces that has killed 2,272 people so far. In April, the end of that outbreak, the country’s worst, had been just days away from being declared over when new cases were found. The same region is also home to the world’s largest ongoing measles outbreak.

The worst outbreak of Ebola took place mainly across three West African countries between late 2013 and early 2016, when nearly 30,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died.

The new outbreak in Équateur would be Congo’s 11th since the virus was first identified in 1976. Experimental vaccines have proved effective in preventing the spread of Ebola, but no cure has been found. Different strains of the virus exist, and different outbreaks have had mortality rates ranging from 25 to 90 percent.

Rickety health infrastructure and mistrust in governments and foreign aid organizations have impeded Ebola responses both in Congo and West Africa. Locals have accused health officials and contracted suppliers of using well-funded responses to enrich themselves while imposing strict restrictions on movement and business. Congo’s government, however, has been lauded as quick to identify and contain Ebola in most previous outbreaks.