The Current

'Whack-a-mole' Ebola outbreak could morph from epidemic to endemic, says expert

We look at the Ebola epidemic spreading through Congo and hear from experts who say that without intervention, it's only going to get worse.

Laurie Garrett explains how infected militants are making disease hard to contain

Health-care workers adjust gear before entering a room where a baby is suspected of dying of Ebola in Beni, Congo, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Read Story Transcript

The sporadic nature of the Ebola outbreak in Congo is being caused in part by infected, armed combatants who are leaving the illness in their wake as they prowl the conflict-ravaged nation, according to one expert.

"Since this epidemic first popped up … it has had a kind of whack-a-mole effect," said Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

She's also the author of Ebola: Story of an Outbreak, a book on the 1995 outbreak in the country then known as Zaire.

"Suddenly there's an outbreak over here, and then 100 miles away there's now an outbreak over there, and then 10 miles into the rainforest there's ones here. And often it's impossible to figure out how they're connected."

Garrett told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay this is happening because armed militants aren't seeking medical help from international responders, and are likely dying among their comrades.

This, coupled with military violence against civilians and aid workers, is making it "almost impossible" to contain the disease.

2nd-largest outbreak

The mother of a child suspected of dying from Ebola cries near her child's coffin in Beni, North Kivu Province of Congo, on Dec. 17, 2018. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The World Health Organization has dubbed the Ebola outbreak in Congo the second-largest in history since it was declared in August. It is the worst outbreak ever recorded in the West African country.

In a country that has been described the "rape capital of the world," sexual assault is also compounding the problem, as Ebola can be sexually transmitted, Garrett said.

If the disease spreads further south toward Goma, inching closer to neighbouring countries Uganda and Rwanda, the outbreak could go from epidemic to endemic — making it a common disease in the region — she said.

To learn more about the crisis in Congo, Chattopadhyay spoke with:

  • Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ebola: Story of an Outbreak.
  • Karin Huster, a field co-ordinator with Doctors Without Borders, and a clinical instructor in the department of global health at the University of Washington.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Imogen Birchard.