DR Congo

Amid the Ebola Epidemic, Protecting Health Care Workers

A Direct Relief shipment of personal protective equipment will aid Goma's Ebola treatment center.

By Talya Meyers

A Direct Relief shipment designed to fight the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has reached its destination.

The shipment, which contains masks, coveralls, tents, and other personal protective equipment (often abbreviated as PPE), has been delivered to an Ebola response center in Goma, in the province of North Kivu.

“The ability to safely treat folks with Ebola…requires access to PPE. That’s a vital way to prevent its spread and to protect healthcare workers and patients,” said Dr. Myron Glick, the founder and CEO of Jericho Road, an international aid organization and Direct Relief partner that received the shipment.

North Kivu is the epicenter of an Ebola outbreak that began in August of 2018 and has claimed nearly 2,200 lives. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international public health emergency in July of 2019.

Response to the crisis has been complicated by a deep distrust of Ebola response efforts among many in the nation. That distrust has led to sometimes fatal violence against responders and a journalist attempting to shed light on the issue.

There’s good news: The crisis does appear to be slowing. Nine new cases were reported from November 11-17, compared to 126 reported cases in a week at the outbreak’s height in late April, according to a WHO report released on November 19.

In addition, an experimental vaccine, made available under compassionate use protocol, has been employed since the onset of the outbreak for anyone determined to be at high risk of contracting the disease.

A complementary vaccine, intended for at-risk populations in areas where Ebola has not yet been transmitted, was introduced in October.

Despite distrust and instability, community engagement efforts have made vaccination a powerful tool in combating the disease’s spread. Since August 8, 2018, more than 250,000 people have received an Ebola vaccine, the WHO report said.

The availability of the vaccine – particularly for health care workers – has made it possible to continue providing primary care in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Glick said. “So many health care providers have been immunized, which takes a little bit of an edge off,” he explained.

By contrast, during the West Africa outbreak that began in 2014, “it felt like primary care sort of shut down for the year and a half.”

But personal protective equipment remains a vital part of response efforts. The new Direct Relief shipment is “really a blessing… for the people on the front lines who treat Ebola,” Dr. Glick said.

Among the country’s primary health providers is Jericho Road, which operates a clinic in Goma. The city currently has no active cases of Ebola, and Dr. Glick said, life continues as usual. “There is a heightened sense of awareness,” he explained, and primary care workers continue to screen for the disease, but in areas where Ebola is not active, “life goes on.”

The Ebola crisis may be slowing, but response efforts may meet new challenges as more rural or isolated communities are exposed to the virus, according to the WHO report.