Dr. Kasereka “Jo” Lusi (left), an orthopedic surgeon who founded HEAL Africa, consults with Dr. Bill Clemmer, who leads the Ebola response for IMA World Health, in front of an isolation unit for suspected Ebola patients at the entrance to the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma, the war-torn city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo by Paul Jeffrey/IMA World Health)

Reflections on the end of DRC's longest, deadliest Ebola outbreak

By Dr. Bill Clemmer 

Almost two years since the onset, the World Health Organization declared an official end of the Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The outbreak started in an isolated corner of northeastern DRC in July 2018 and eventually would spread to 29 health zones across three provinces. By June 2020, the total number of persons infected was 3,463, including more than 150 Ebola response workers.

With a duration of 23 months and the loss of 2,280 lives, this outbreak of Ebola is DRC’s longest and deadliest on record. A WHO advisory committee has described this as, “without doubt, one of the most complex outbreaks ever faced by the health community.”

A coordinated response saves lives

With support from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, IMA World Health led a consortium of faith-based partners (Tearfund, PPSSP, and Heal Africa) to respond to the outbreak. I have been privileged to have led a highly committed and multi-talented team of doctors, nurses, engineers, community health workers, counselors, logistics experts and more. Our team, like many others, lived and worked in the Ebola hot zone from the early months of the outbreak, through times of conflict and strife, to prevent the spread of this deadly virus.

I am especially proud of the accomplishments of our IMA-led team:

  • 85 hospitals and health clinics were prepared and equipped for identification and isolation of Ebola suspect patients

  • 448,576 patients were safely consulted in health facilities with IPC (infection-prevention-control) measures put in place by IMA and its partners

  • $992,662 worth of personal protection equipment was purchased and delivered to health care workers

  • 7,810 contact persons (at-risk or exposed) were identified, followed and monitored for Ebola

  • 1,212 health staff were supported and trained in Ebola case identification, isolation and alerts

  • 1,342 outreach staff were supported and trained in community-based surveillance 

  • 1,006 religious leaders and teachers were trained in Ebola messaging

  • 444,634 persons received key messages from IMA-supported community health workers

  • 319,106 households were visited by IMA-supported community health workers

  • 78 Ebola Triage and Isolation Units were established along with 164 water supply and hygiene systems that were installed in supported health clinics.

Clemmer (right) conducts an end-of-day chart review with a health worker on patient screening and care. (Photo by IMA World Health/staff)

Fighting Ebola in a conflict zone 

Such accomplishments, achieved in the middle of a war zone, were largely possible due to IMA’s focus on partnering with national organizations such as Heal Africa and PPSSP, known and trusted by local communities. As one WHO report made clear, this is “the first Ebola outbreak to occur in a highly active conflict zone, and is taking place in the midst of one of the most protracted, severe, and neglected humanitarian crises the world has ever seen.” Our partnership with local organizations enabled us to traverse the climate of fear, mistrust, and daily threats of attacks from armed militia, to render life-saving support to hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise would have been left aside.

As COVID-19 cases have begun to present themselves in eastern DRC, the lessons learned and gains we’ve made in confronting this protracted Ebola outbreak will only serve us well as we turn our eyes to the next crisis, confident of our ability to make an essential and lasting difference, together.

Dr. Bill Clemmer is a physician and public health expert based in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He leads the IMA World Health and Lutheran World Relief response to the largest Ebola outbreak in DRC's history.