Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, on July 20, 2014. The country at that time had the highest number of Ebola cases - at 454 - surpassing neighbouring Guinea where the outbreak originated in February. PIcture: REUTERS
HEALTH critics say that the new outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, shortly after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the previous outbreak had been eradicated, indicates the vulnerability of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

There was pomp and ceremony globally amid the declaration on July 24 of the end of the outbreak initially recorded in the western Équateur Province, after 33 deaths from 54 cases since May 8.

It was the largest outbreak of the virus disease since the Central African epidemic of 2013-16 left over 11300 people dead.

Experts and humanitarian organisations expressed reservations that the troubled Central African country was out of the woods.

Their worst fears were realised on August 1 when it was confirmed that four cases had tested positive for Ebola in the war-torn eastern region of Kivu, 2500km away.

As of earlier this week, 33 people had been confirmed dead from 80 cases. It could yet prove among the worst since the first outbreak in the then Zaire in 1976 when 280 people died from 318 outbreaks, representing a fatality rate of 88%.

North Kivu, the epicentre of the latest outbreak, is also in the middle of conflict between rebel groups and the military. It is also beset by intercommunal conflict.

North Kivu has seen nearly 750000 people flee their homes this year alone. The province is one of the most densely populated in the DRC, with a population of about 8million, about a 10th of the country’s total population.

The affected areas host over one million displaced people and shares borders with Rwanda and Uganda, with common cross-border movement due to trade activities.

“To add an Ebola outbreak to this situation is likely to push many communities to breaking point,” said Bernard Balibuno, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development representative in the DRC.

The prolonged humanitarian crisis and deterioration of the security situation is expected to hinder response to this outbreak.

“The declaration of a new Ebola outbreak in North Kivu couldn’t have hit at a worse time or place,” warned Dr Ulrika Blom, the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in DRC. “It’s a lamentable setback in the overall humanitarian response, and will compound the massive challenges we already face helping the millions of people in crisis across the country.”

The mood at the WHO has in a week shifted from elation to one filled with woes. “We are in a different situation than that of the province of Équateur,” said Tarik Jasarevic, WHO spokesperson.

He lamented the prevalence of armed groups wreaking havoc in North Kivu. “Instability should be a major constraint on the work of the WHO.”

The WHO intended to assess the security situation with the UN Mission in the country (Monusco) and make the necessary arrangements.

“It may be to have additional equipment including armoured cars. All this could increase the cost but also the time of the operations,” Jasarevic said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said it anticipated a “highly complex” response to the latest crisis. “We anticipate an extremely challenging operational environment, given the fact that the presumptive outbreak is occurring in an area affected by conflict, and that is close to both a major population centre and an international border,” said Dr Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, IFRC’s regional director for Africa.

Insufficient funding is compounding the crisis. Slightly over 21% of $1.7billion (R22.86bn) required to help some 13 million people in need in the DRC has been received so far.

Funding challenges have forced several aid agencies to close in North Kivu.

The crises are pestilences battering the DRC, which was plunged further into doom by President Joseph Kabila’s stay in power despite the lapse of his term in 2016.