How the Democratic Republic of Congo Fought A Different Ebola Outbreak

This week, Mali announced it had become the sixth African nation to be affected by the worst Ebola outbreak in history, with the majority of infections occurring in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. But there's a seventh country in Africa, quietly dealing with it's own Ebola outbreak: The Democratic Republic Congo.

Since July, 49 people have died from and 69 have become infected by a strain of the virus genetically distinct from the outbreak in West Africa. The infections occurred the remote Equateur Province, around Boende town, located in the northwest of the country, with 'patient zero' being a pregnant woman who became infected from a piece of monkey meat and later died. From there the virus spread.

But not very far. There hasn't been a new case in the Congo since October 4, and experts suspect the World Health Organization will declare the country Ebola-free by early November.

"We know how to contain this virus," Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, better known in the country's capital city of Kinshasa as "Dr. Ebola," told VICE News. For the last 38 years he has been fighting the virus wherever it emerges — from Gabon to Sudan. But the vast majority of his time is spent in the DRC, where he oversees the National Biomedical Research Institute, a laboratory dedicated to the study of emerging pathogenic threats, including Ebola.

The Institute is equipped with biosafety labs where samples are analyzed for quick diagnoses. They can test for Ebola, Marburg, or any other viral disease that might emerge from the Congo forest.

"For really sophisticated tests, we work in collaboration with other institutions in the United States or France," Tamfum said. "But in the future we're hoping that all the analysis can be done right here, in Congo."

Congo has had more Ebola outbreaks than any other nation — the latest is the country's seventh. Tamfum has worked all of them. In August he made his first trip to Liberia as part of a five-man team sent to advise political leadership in the West African nation on the best practices for containment of the outbreak. While it's not clear why Ebola has been easier to contain in Congo than in West Africa, Tamfum believes that the biggest factor might be community engagement.

How Ebola science should guide America's new Ebola czar. Read more here. 

"What I saw was the lack of trust between the population and the medical workers and their government leaders," Tamfum said. "This created a gap."

Tamfum believes that because this was the first time Ebola emerged in West Africa, the local population was unsure how to respond. "They didn't take precautions to protect themselves, because they didn't believe what they had was Ebola."

In contrast, the Congolese government has been working with traditional leaders and local politicians for decades to build a community response in high-risk areas. In Congo, people are serious about not touching dead bodies, even during funeral time.

"Everybody accepts that it's not the populations job to take care of dead bodies in an Ebola outbreak. It's the job of medical professionals," Tamfum explained. "This is how we break the transmission chain."

The other major advantage is the geographical isolation of Congo. Most of the outbreaks have emerged in remote villages. The Congo is notoriously difficult to navigate, with poor road infrastructure, armed groups and dense forest. People who become sick are unlikely to leave the area of contamination.

"In West Africa, people move freely," Tamfum. "That's another challenge."

In an effort to increase African Solidarity, the Congolese government — in conjunction with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University — plans to train more than 1,000 health workers in best practices in responding to Ebola outbreaks.

Congo's Health Minister Felix Kabange recently told Reuters "We have made here what we call African solidarity in action." About 600 volunteers have been recruited in the capital city Kinshasa. It's expected that three teams could be ready to assist in West Africa by mid-November. The hope is that Congo will be able to share some of its hard earned expertise on ending Ebola outbreaks.

"The work we do, it's very dangerous," Dr. Stomy Karhemere, the deputy director of the National Biomedical Research Institute in Kinshasa, told VICE News. He spends a lot of time analyzing samples for emerging viruses, including Ebola. "We wear protective equipment to protect ourselves. We work under biosafety cabinets. We take precautions. We want to share that knowledge with others."

This is not the first time two Ebola outbreaks have emerged simultaneously. In 1976, when the virus was first discovered in Congo, another outbreak emerged in Sudan. Scientists have noticed that the frequency of Ebola outbreaks is increasing, but this might not be cause for alarm.

"What's really happening is that we're learning to diagnose Ebola faster," Dr. Tamfum. "We have a better surveillance system, and we can respond faster than ever."