A fatal Ebola case has been detected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), less than six months after the country declared their last outbreak was over. While only one case has been confirmed so far, health authorities suspect there have already been unconfirmed fatalities from the disease and more cases may be yet to come.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the new lab-confirmed Ebola case was detected in North Kivu Province of the DRC. The patient was a 3-year-old boy who developed tell-tale symptoms of Ebola earlier this month, such as physical weakness, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, breathing difficulty, and blood in their vomit. He died on October 6. By October 8, a sample from the patient sent to a lab for analysis confirmed that he was infected with the Ebola virus.
According to the WHO announcement, three of the boy's neighbors (two children and their father) died on September 14, 19, and 29 after developing symptoms consistent with Ebola, but none were tested for the virus. Even more concerningly, the three bodies were not buried in a safe and sanitized way needed to prevent the spread of this infectious disease.
“There is a risk of a potential spread and likely more cases,” Dr Fiona Braka, manager of emergency response at the World Health Organization’s Africa office, told The Telegraph.
A total of 148 contacts of the confirmed patient have also been identified and are under investigation by the health authorities. The boy lived in the neighborhood of Butsili, which was one of the epicenters of the 2018–2020 Ebola outbreak in the DRC and about 50 kilometers (~30 miles) from Butembo city which experienced a new Ebola outbreak earlier this year.
Ebola is a viral disease that causes blood clotting problems, leading to internal bleeding and other complications. Around half the people who contract the disease die, although case fatality rates have varied from 25 percent to 90 percent in different outbreaks. The infection often starts with symptoms such as fever, fatigue, muscle pains, and is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function, and unexplained bleeding.
The disease can be spread through contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from the Ebola virus disease. Additionally, the virus is present in animal reservoirs found in sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, effective Ebola vaccines have been developed in recent years and were extensively used in the last DRC outbreak.
It’s not unexpected for odd cases to emerge in the wake of an Ebola epidemic. It’s known that the virus can linger in bodily fluids, namely semen, for over a year after the initial infection and lay dormant before sparking new outbreaks. To understand whether this newly confirmed case is linked to prior outbreaks, health authorities will be sequencing the virus and comparing it to previous samples, hoping to track its evolution and history.
“Determining if the outbreaks are linked is important,” noted Dr Braka to the Telegraph, adding “We expect that by the end of the workweek we should have the results.”