The Ebola Virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is spreading so quickly, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) believe the possibility that the virus will cross the border into Uganda is “very high.” According to the Associated Press, two patients near the border region tested positive for the virus last week. This latest outbreak began in early August.
According to the WHO, the epicenter for this outbreak is in the town of Beni, in North Kivu Province. As of September 30, there were a total of 161 confirmed cases of Ebola Virus and 105 deaths.
Regional violence complicates response
Although the WHO response teams have been working closely with medical officials from the DRC, their response to the areas hit hardest by the virus has been crippled by regional violence. According to a report from Voice of America, violent rebel militias and Islamic extremist groups have locked down parts of North Kivu, creating so-called “red zones” where aid workers are not safe. Peacekeeping forces assigned to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) are escorting medical workers into hostile regions.
“Between Beni and Oicha there is a Red Zone, said WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier. “Oicha, itself is not a Red Zone, but also getting to Oicha is possible with the help of MONUSCO, and we are very thankful for that.”
Despite the assistance from soldiers of the MONUSCO task force, aid workers are still having a difficult time getting into some critical areas. Earlier in the week, medical operations in Beni were halted after rebels attacked the town, according to Associated Press. A report from the BBC states that 18 people were killed in the attack, 14 of which were civilians.
The Uganda-based Islamic extremist group Allied Democratic Forces are suspected as the likely suspect behind the most recent attacks.
According to the Associated Press, the unrest and unstable political climate in the region, combined with public apathy toward the virus and vaccinations has set the table for a “perfect storm” for the virus to cross the border. This is the first time Ebola has appeared in the northern part of the DRC, and the local populace’s unfamiliarity with the illness further compounds the issue.
Medical workers in Uganda are currently preparing doses of the Ebola vaccine for deployment if the need arises. The country has seen five previous Ebola outbreaks in the past, including two as recently as 2012.
Possible economic impacts
Uganda and the DRC were both spared during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak which was centered in western Africa. In total, 1,597 people died as a result of that outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to the human toll, the three countries affected — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — lost a total of $2.2 billion from their combined GDPs as a result of the epidemic. The outbreak did significant damage to the countries’ agriculture businesses in particular.
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the majority of the DRC’s working population is employed in the agriculture field, meaning that a blow to farming would significantly damage the country’s already fragile economy.
Uganda also has a primarily agrarian economy, meaning an Ebola outbreak would be similarly detrimental. Even if the virus never makes it across the border, refugees fleeing from the DRC to escape the virus may inundate the country’s social services infrastructure, as well as place a higher demand on the country’s farmers.
The United States is taking a more active role in preventing the spread of Ebola
As a response to the potential catastrophe, USAID has deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to a press release from USAID, the DART is comprised of employees from the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Although both USAID and HHS have had personnel on the ground since August, the deployment of the DART represents a significant escalation in US efforts.