How Congo Beat the Last Ebola Outbreak

The Crucial Role of International Cooperation

Residents celebrate the return of Lucien Ambunga, the Catholic parish priest of the village, after he recovered from Ebola and returned to the village of Itipo, Equateur province, June 2018. WHO / Lindsay Mackenzie

On July 24, the World Health Organization announced the end of an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Equateur Province that had infected 54 people and killed 33. Eight days later, the Congolese government reported that the virus had struck again, some 1,500 miles away, in North Kivu, an active conflict zone. As health officials race to assess the complexity of this new threat, the rare occurrence of back-to-back outbreaks underscores the growing danger that infectious diseases like Ebola pose to humanity.

The new outbreak is Congo’s tenth scrap with Ebola since the virus was discovered in 1976, and experience has been an exacting but effective teacher. In May, the Congolese government recognized the risk in Equateur immediately and alerted the WHO. Within hours of receiving laboratory confirmation, the WHO activated its emergency management system, which directs resources and personnel from across its organization to where they are needed. Within days, the UN began ferrying health-care workers and supplies to the center of the outbreak, and donor nations, including the United States, released emergency funds. Less than two weeks after the outbreak began, frontline health-care workers received the protection of a new tool: an Ebola vaccine. And perhaps most significant, the response demonstrated the value of investing in local health-care systems, as more than three-quarters of those deployed came from within the region. As a result, in less than three months, the disease had been detected in remote villages, tracked to Mbandaka, a city of more than one million people on the banks of the Congo River, and contained before it could spread to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, or neighboring countries. 

That response required global cooperation, international institutions, and far-sighted investments in science, health, and governance that have enabled countries to tackle their own problems before they become everyone else’s. The work under way in North Kivu will require the same. As U.S. President Donald Trump and like-minded demagogues undermine the global order, defenders of liberal internationalism would do

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