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Fighting outbreaks


In 2014, West Africa experienced the largest ever outbreak of Ebola, infecting over 28,000 people and claiming over 11,000 lives. The International Rescue Committee was at the forefront of the fight to stem the spread of the deadly Ebola virus and is now responding to the latest outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


The International Rescue Committee (IRC) was at the forefront of the fight to contain the deadly Ebola virus during the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014.

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What is Ebola?

Ebola is a virus characterized by fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea and, in a few patients, bleeding.

Where was the deadliest outbreak of Ebola?

The largest and most complex Ebola outbreak occurred in West Africa in 2014. The disease was first discovered in Guinea and then moved across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting 28,000 people and claiming more than 11,000 lives. The IRC was a leading responder.

In May 2018 an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the virus was first discovered in 1976, spread to Mbandaka, a densely populated city of 1.2 million people in May 2018. Before this, the Democratic Republic of Congo had experienced a total of nine Ebola outbreaks, mainly in rural areas. In May, the outbreak occurred in an urban setting, which significantly increased the risk of an epidemic. 

The IRC is working with the Congolese government and the World Health Organization and its partners on the ground to contain the outbreak by sending a team of infection-control specialists, environmental health experts and medical logisticians to support existing health facilities. The goal is to strengthen prevention and control by helping facilities to identify and isolate Ebola cases in addition to providing lifesaving non-Ebola health services.

How does Ebola spread?

The virus is contracted through direct exposure to bodily fluids (of an infected person or a contaminated animal). Patients can take up to 21 days to develop symptoms, and Ebola’s initial symptoms are nonspecific, making it difficult to diagnose the disease quickly.

A burial team in Liberia about to carry away the body of a man suspected of having died from the Ebola outbreak in 2014 Photo: Peter Biro/IR

Patients who receive early treatment have a higher chance of survival and are less likely to infect others. People are not infectious until they develop symptoms.

Ebola is most contagious during the late stages of the disease: according to the World Health Organisation, the virus remains contagious for up to three days after a victim dies. New Ebola cases can occur among relatives practicing burial rituals (such as washing corpses) or transporting the deceased for burial.

How do you treat Ebola?

Treatment for Ebola includes replenishing fluids, maintaining oxygen supply, and monitoring blood pressure. Health care workers treating Ebola patients must wear special protective equipment including gloves, goggles, fluid-resistant gowns, and masks covering nose and mouth.

The IRC supported hundreds of health facilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, providing protective equipment to thousands of health workers, training them to screen for Ebola, and sharing protocols for isolating suspected patients and alerting authorities. 

How do you prevent Ebola?

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the IRC trained local health workers in how to use personal protective equipment when trating Ebola patients. Photo: Peter Biro/IRC

The spread of Ebola can be prevented by washing hands frequently with soap and water.

Contact tracing helps to identify people who have had significant physical contact with a confirmed Ebola patient while that patient exhibited symptoms.

After a person tests positive for Ebola, contact tracers interview family members and others possibly exposed to the virus, then monitor them for symptoms for 21 days.  

People who should be tracked for Ebola are those who:

  • had direct physical contact with a suspected or confirmed case (touched blood, body fluids, clothes or bedding);
  • had direct physical contact with a victim of Ebola at a funeral;
  • slept in the same household with a suspected or confirmed case.

Babies breastfed by infected mothers must be monitored for symptoms.

If a person shows signs of infection, an ambulance team should transport him or her to an isolation center to be tested for the virus, thus minimizing the transmission of the virus to others. If the person tests positive for Ebola, doctors, and nurses begin treatment and contact tracers repeat the process.

An experimental Ebola vaccine was deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo. While still in the testing phase, it was shown to be highly protective against Ebola. The vaccine was given to people who have had direct contact with infected patients, as well as those who had contact with these contacts, in order to establish a buffer of immune individuals to prevent the spread of the virus.

Fear and misinformation about Ebola in West Africa had spread faster than the virus, keeping people from seeking medical help and taking the critical steps to protect themselves and their families. It’s critical to educate communities on protection and prevention by enlisting the support of trusted locals.

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