A new Ebola outbreak has infected 32 people --  and the White House official in charge of responses to global pandemics just left

John Moore/GettyIn the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, officials want to make sure to stop any outbreak before it spreads to a major town.
  • A new Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has infected 32 people, with two confirmed cases, 18 probable, and 12 suspected. There have been 18 deaths.
  • Because of the location of the outbreak and the fact that healthcare workers were infected, World Health Organisation officials are preparing for the possibility that the virus has spread further than reported.
  • On Tuesday, the same day the outbreak was announced, the White House official in charge of global pandemic response stepped down. He is not being replaced.

An Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has sickened 32 people, including three health workers, according to the latest update from the World Health Organisation.

The WHO declared a new Ebola outbreak on Tuesday. That day, the White House’s senior director for global health security, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, stepped down from his position. Ziemer was the official in charge of leading the response to global pandemic disease, but nobody is taking over his role.

According to a report in The Washington Post, the global-health-security team was disbanded under John Bolton, the new national security adviser. The White House is also planning to cut funding allocated to preventing global pandemics.

Ziemer, considered by some to be one of the most effective public-health officials the US has had, was “basically pushed out,” The Post reported, citing a person familiar with the reorganization.

Fighting an outbreak before it gets worse

Ebola virus cellNational Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of HealthEbola virus particles (blue) budding from an infected cell.

The reported cases of Ebola so far are in a town called Bikoro in the Equateur province of Congo. Of the cases, two have been confirmed, 18 are probable, and 12 are suspected. There have been 18 deaths.

But the outbreak may be worse than it seems, a WHO official told Stat, since it may have started earlier and spread further than has been reported. The cases so far have been on a lake port, meaning it’s possible an infected person could have travelled to a larger city. The infected healthcare workers could have spread the virus as well.

A team from Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, is helping coordinate responses on the ground in Congo, according to a statement from the organisation.

“MSF has worked alongside the Congolese authorities in the past to care for patients suffering from Ebola and bring outbreaks under control,” Julien Raickman, the head of the mission in Congo, said in the statement. “At the moment, there is an experienced MSF team in Bikoro, made up of medics, water and sanitation experts, health promoters, logisticians, and an epidemiologist.”

A dangerous virus with pandemic potential

Ebola’s potential to spread rapidly is the reason it’s essential to have dedicated officials coordinating a response to an outbreak before it turns into a deadly epidemic or pandemic.

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever discovered in 1976 in Yambuku, Zaire, now the Congo. Fatality rates have varied from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks, with an average of about 50%.

Generally, an Ebola outbreak begins when humans encounter an infected animal, then spreads among humans through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids. Symptoms usually begin with fever, weakness, soreness, and headache, often followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, organ failure, and sometimes internal and external bleeding.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa infected more than 28,600 people and killed more than 11,300. In its wake, there has been significant research conducted on a potential vaccine. The WHO is planning to approve the deployment of that experimental vaccine soon, but it’s not yet clear how effective it will be.

The current risk of Ebola spreading to nearby countries is moderate, based on the WHO’s assessment.

The WHO’s deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response, Peter Salama, says the organisation is preparing for the worst, including the possibility that the disease could spread to a major town or city.

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