A new Ebola outbreak is on the radar in the Congo and just over a week ago had reached a city of more than a million people. Well, things likely got a whole lot worse over the weekend when family members of 3 infectious patients with confirmed cases of Ebola broke them out of quarantine and took them to a prayer meeting with at least 50 people. That may seem like it’s a long way from the US but read on.
People at the prayer meeting were definitely exposed, as two of the patients were in the most infectious stages of the disease, with vomiting and diarrhea.
Two of the three escapees are dead and the third was returned to the quarantine center.
The UK Independent interviewed Dr. Jean-Clement Cabrol, emergency medical coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders):
“The escape was organized by the families, with six motorcycles as the patients were very ill and couldn’t walk,” Dr. Cabrol told a news briefing in Geneva after returning from the affected region.
“They were taken to a prayer room with 50 people to pray. They were found at two in the morning, one of them dead and one was dying. So that’s 50-60 contacts right there. The patients were in the active phase of the disease, vomiting.” (source)
It’s not unusual in the Congo for this to happen, according to WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic.
He said that both of the deceased had been given a safe and dignified burial and added that “it was only human” that sick people wanted to be with their families “in what could be the last moments of life”.
“It is very unfortunate that people fled the treatment centre, but it is not unexpected. We had this in previous outbreaks,” he said. (source)
Jasarevic said that this makes it particularly important to engage with the community so they can understand how Ebola spreads and the urgency of getting medical attention.
Tracking down the contacts of the escaped Ebola patients
Now the work begins of tracking down everyone with whom the escaped patients may have been in contact to try and prevent the outbreak from getting out of the city into an even more populated area.
Because Ebola has a 21-day incubation period, an infected person might not realize they have contracted the disease until it’s too late and they’ve exposed uncounted others to it.
Health officials started trying to trace the motorcycle drivers and other people who came into contact with the patients as soon as the escape was reported, Dr. Peter Salama, head of emergency response at the WHO, told Reuters.
“From the moment that they escaped, the health ministry, WHO, and partners have been following very closely every contact,” he said.
“All it takes is one sick person to travel down the Congo River and we can have outbreaks seeded in many different locations … that can happen at any moment. It’s very hard to predict,” he said, referring to the river linking the trading hub of Mbandaka to the capital Kinshasa, whose population is 10 million.
More than 600 contacts have been identified so far.
Could this Ebola outbreak spread to Europe and the US?
If a person with Ebola gets to the capital city, that’s when people in other areas really need to begin paying attention. Kinshasa is a major transportation hub.
Software called FLIRT (FLIght Risk Tracker) has determined where the virus could potentially spread from there.
They used flight date from the airports in Mbandaka, Kinshasa, and Brazzaville to predict the places most at risk for infection and found that these cities are the most closely connected to the point of origin.
- Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo
- Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- Brazzaville, Republic of Congo
- Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Brussels, Belgium
- Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Paris, France
- Nairobi, Kenya
- Johannesburg, South Africa
- Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Republic of Congo
- South Africa
- Côte d’Ivoire
It’s not hard to see how easily this outbreak could reach highly populated parts of Europe. And then, it could go anywhere.
Including the United States. EcoHealth Alliance reports:
The analysis ranks the United States 17th on the list, with 0.5 percent of outgoing passengers entering the country. The U.S. cities with the highest percentage (greater than 0.01 percent) of incoming passengers coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo are:
- New York (JFK): 0.13% of US-bound passengers coming from the Region of Interest (ROI)
- Miami (MIA): 0.11% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Atlanta (ATL): 0.06% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Boston (BOS): 0.05% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Los Angeles (LAX): 0.05% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Detroit (DTW): 0.04% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Washington, D.C. (IAD): 0.02% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Cincinnati (CVG): 0.01% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW): 0.01% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Newark (EWR): 0.01% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Chicago (ORD): 0.01% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
- Ft. Lauderdale (FLL): 0.01% of US-bound passengers coming from ROI
It only takes one sick person on any of these flights to result in a global pandemic that could wipe out millions of people.
“While the percentage of overall passengers entering the U.S. from that region is low,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance. “With approximately half a million passengers traveling from the Democratic Republic of Congo each year, the disease requires just one infected traveler to cause a global public health emergency, and this helps us be forewarned and prepared.” (source)
The last time Ebola reached our shores, we got very, very lucky. One patient completely overwhelmed an entire hospital. If there were hundreds or thousands of patients across the country, it wouldn’t take long for things to devolve into absolute chaos. Ebola can have a death rate as high as 90%.
Like I said in the previous article I wrote on this topic, it isn’t time to batten down the hatches but it’s certainly time to be watchful and make sure that you are prepared for the potential of a pandemic. As you can see, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to think that the deadly disease could once again reach the US.
Ebola could easily spread outside the Congo and by the time it does, everyone else will be vying for the same supplies.