Lessons from DRC: Vaccination as a means of preventing outbreaks

Over the last decade, the Democratic Republic of Congo has faced various challenges that have crippled its economy. In addition to the looming ethnic conflict, the country is embattled with a re-occurring deadly Ebola virus disease (EVD).

Following the most recent outbreak of Ebola, the Central African country has decided to take a different approach to tackle the virus that killed over 40 people this August by using an experimental mAb114 Ebola treatment  to counter the latest outbreak of the virus.

On 1st of August, DRC’s Ministry of Health notified the World Health Organisation of a new outbreak of EVD in North Kivu Province of the country, one of the most populated provinces with eight million inhabitants. However, recent deaths and investigations conducted prove that the disease has spread past the northern provinces to war-ridden zones, heightening fears of a country-wide spread of Ebola.

The experimental treatment, mAb114 monoclonal antibody was developed by Jean-Jacques Muyembe at the National Institute for Biomedical Research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was derived from an EVD survivor of the 1995 DRC outbreak in Kikwit who still had circulating anti-Ebola antibodies 11 years later.

Although the drug had been tested on macaques — a species of monkey, the DRC which is desperate for cure and management of the virus has deployed it to be tested on humans in hopes of a positive outcome.

Ebola and the DRC

This August outbreak of EVD is the country’s 10th, 42 years from its discovery in 1976. Ebola was first identified 60 miles from Ebola River, a tributary 250 km river in northern DRCongo in 1976.

Since the discovery of Ebola in the country, there has been more than 1,200 recorded cases and about 1000 deaths in DRC. As at 11 August, a total of 990 contacts were under surveillance.

Epidemic: A Blight on the Economy 

Epidemics and pandemics often cause panic and although the focus is largely on the human cost of the diseases, there are also significant economic impacts.

In a report by the World Health Organisation, economies with better health conditions enjoy positive and direct impact on economic growth. This is because a healthier workforce has both improved physical/mental abilities and can produce more from the same input.

Economia Pandemic Emergency Facility (PEF) estimates that a severe pandemic could have an economic impact of approximately $550 billion-$570 billion worldwide, which is about 0.7 percent of global GDP. In forms of facilities and vaccinations, Ebola has cost over $10 billion with around $7 billion supplied in aid from other countries.

In addition to cost, epidemics have led to a decline in tourists visit. Health concerns among others have made countries rank low in livable cities chart, worsen the business environment and reduced investor confidence.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is widely considered one of the world’s richest countries in natural resources; its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion. DRCongo has 70 percent of the world’s coltan and despite such vast mineral wealth, the economy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has declined drastically since the mid-1980s.

Vaccination, a welcome strategy

The August outbreak saw a roll out of over  7,500 doses of the Ebola vaccine to the Democratic Republic of Congo in a campaign against the epidemic.

The country has witnessed so many outbreaks and in just 3 years, over 2000 people have been killed as a result. In 2015 over 23,000 people, mostly children were infected with measles in the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to United Nations agencies and Doctors Without Borders, more than 400 of these people died.

Similarly in May 2016, the National International Health Regulations (IHR) Focal Point of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) notified WHO of yellow fever outbreak in all provinces in the country. Two years later, in May 2018, the country also suffered a cholera outbreak resulting in 1065 recorded cases including 43 deaths reported from 32 out of 35 health zones in Kinshasa province alone.

As with all the outbreaks, the country begins disbursing vaccines as a follow-up measure. For the Ebola virus, DRC’s Deputy Representative of UNICEF, Tajudeen Oyewale, noted that “vaccination is a crucial strategy to control the disease, the importance of vaccination in preventing the spread was first demonstrated in the past epidemic in the western part of the country”.

Hopefully, the deployment of several other experimental treatments including Remdesivir, Favipiravir and REGN3450, REGN3471 and REGN3479 which are awaiting approval would have a successful impact in managing the virus.

President of the World Bank Group Jim Yong Kim said the Ebola crisis has shown the necessity for the global community to “be much more vigilant to outbreaks” so that it can “respond immediately to save lives and also to protect economic growth”.

This vigilance should be applied to daily living and not only in the advent of an outbreak. Vaccines for Ebola and other vaccines if successfully discovered, should be added to the daily immunization given to kids at birth, pregnant women and other members of the society as a method of nipping any upcoming outbreak at the bud.