Auburn professor: Congo Ebola outbreak likely to spread to other African countries

Published: August 02, 2019
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As the deadly Ebola virus outbreak in Eastern Congo continues to spread, Stewart Schneller, an Auburn University professor who studies the virus, offers comments on the efforts to control the spread of the virus and the complicated circumstances surrounding that effort.

“While the Ebola virus present in Eastern Congo manifests itself in the same way (symptoms and death) as the major outbreak in Western Africa during the 2014-2016 period, the circumstances surrounding its prominence have presented challenges to controlling its spread,” Schneller said. “It is this backdrop that has most concerned the World Health Organization as Ebola is now being documented in Goma (a major transportation hub), the largest city in Eastern Congo, and Rwanda and Uganda.”

Current Effort to Control

The limited availability of a newly developed, yet unapproved vaccine (but administered under an international compassionate usage policy), with the administration of 160,000 inoculations, has managed to moderately control extensive spread of the pathogen to this point. The vaccine, however, is limited in supply and, in fact, is making it necessary to give smaller inoculant doses, whose effectiveness is uncertain. A second vaccine is being withheld due to various general population anxieties with the current one.  

The vaccine must be given to every person (beyond health givers) who have come in contact with the infected individual. This can be an arduous task requiring a 21-day wait to be certain the recipient is protected.

Prevailing Complicated Circumstances

What contrasts the current Congo Ebola epidemic to the one in 2014-2016 in western Africa and, thus, the approaches to containment are found in a variety of circumstances:

  1. Local insurgents keeping armed conflicts ongoing,
  2. Distrust of the federal government,
  3. Rumors of hidden agendas within the vaccination program,
  4. Anxieties associated with needle inoculations,
  5. Terrorist attacks on the service center structures and their workers (some murdered), and
  6. A generally weak infrastructure, etc.

Current Barrier(s) to Ebola Control

It is this above collection of circumstances that is frightening and will make it almost impossible to reign in the Ebola outbreak in the Congo without it crossing borders and spreading in Africa and beyond. Thus, the announcement by the World Health Organization in declaring it an International Emergency is important to promote collaborative arrangements by various organizations and governments to limit viral spread.  

Schneller, a chemistry and biochemistry professor in Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, has for many years studied the Ebola virus and has even worked with a research team at Auburn to design compounds to fight the compromising effects on the immune system that viral infections such as Ebola can cause.