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Can the Ebola Outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo Be Stopped?

The second-largest Ebola outbreak on record has been raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo for over a year. And while distribution of an experimental vaccine and other efforts from health workers have kept the disease from spreading exponentially, the virus has infected over 2,600 people and killed two-thirds of them.

11/19/18 - BOSTON, MA. - Alex Vespignani poses for a portrait on November 19, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Northeastern professor Alessandro Vespignani and his colleagues are working to predict how many people will become infected with Ebola and where the disease may spread next, as well as evaluating the best strategies for distributing the vaccine to treat it. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“All the actors are fighting at their best in this situation,” says Alessandro Vespignani, who is the Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics, Computer Sciences, and Health Sciences at Northeastern. “However, the epidemiological work is complicated by external social and political factors that do not help at all.”

Vespignani and his colleagues are working with the World Health Organization to help model and forecast different aspects of the disease. They’re trying to predict how many people will become infected and where Ebola may spread next, as well as evaluating the best strategies for distributing the vaccine.

The current outbreak began in late July 2018 in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a region already plagued by decades of conflict between armed militias. This violence, and the fear and suspicion it has instilled in many communities, is making it difficult for healthcare workers to stop the virus from spreading.

“There are WHO health workers that have been killed, Ebola treatment units that have been burned,” Vespignani says. “Every time that somebody burns an Ebola treatment unit or makes the vaccine operation shut down for one or two days, that pushes back the containment effort by several weeks.”

The outbreak recently reached Goma, a large city near the border with Rwanda, and was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization. While tracing the disease can be more complicated in a city environment, the arrival of Ebola in Goma was not a complete surprise, thanks to predictive models.

“There has been a lot of preparation,” Vespignani says. “It was one of the hot zones that was projected to possibly see the importation of Ebola cases.”

The new vaccine, made by an American pharmaceutical company, has also made a huge difference in controlling the virus, Vespignani says. While the vaccine is currently unlicensed, it was approved for use under a framework commonly referred to as “compassionate use,” where patients in dire circumstances may be given access to an experimental drug if there are no other treatments available. According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola vaccine has proved to be 97.5% effective.

There has also been more effort during this outbreak to find treatments that could help sick individuals to recover from the disease, Vespignani says.

“We have more and more weapons to fight the situation,” Vespignani says. “Although, as you see, it’s not an easy job.”

This story was originally published on News@Northeastern on August 14, 2019.

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