Doctor’s vaccine hope in tackling DR Congo Ebola outbreak

A doctor who has helped tackle the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo has told how a new vaccine is helping in the fight against the disease.

Dr Catherine Houlihan, from Aberdeen, spent four weeks this summer in the country, where more than 2,000 people have died since the outbreak began last August.

Dr Houlihan believes a new vaccine, developed with support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), has helped dramatically curtail the spread of the virus, with more than 200,000 people now vaccinated.

Initial results show the UK aid funded vaccine has proved 97% effective.

Catherine Houlihan
Catherine Houlihan

A previous outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people between 2013 and 2016.

Dr Houlihan, a clinical lecturer in Infectious Diseases and Virology for both the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and University College London, said: “I think that the vaccine has changed the path of this outbreak. We could have already had a death toll similar to West Africa had we not had it.

“The data is showing that it is 97% effective. Health care workers are one of the highest-risk groups for catching Ebola and this extra protection enables them to carry out their roles far more effectively.”

Dr Houlihan, 39, returned in June from helping tackle the Ebola outbreak in Goma and Butembo in DR Congo’s war-torn North Kivu province, where more than 120 militia groups operate.

She was also in Sierra Leone twice during the West Africa outbreak.

Dr Houlihan praised the bravery of local staff who deal with the outbreak from the beginning and return to work despite the dangers.

She said 5% of all cases in the DRC are health care workers, usually not people working in Ebola treatment centres but the people who work in other smaller health facilities who should have been vaccinated.

Efforts to contain the virus have been hampered by violent attacks on health workers and treatment centres.

Two Ebola health workers were killed last month in North Kivu and the World Health Organisation reported 42 attacks on treatment centres between January and May.

Dr Houlihan said: “The security situation in DR Congo is the biggest difference between this outbreak and the West Africa one.

“Certainly, doing visits to small health centres outside of Goma wasn’t a comfortable journey, knowing that you might meet armed militia and that health workers have been targets.

“We drove past people carrying a gun and it was sometimes a struggle to tell whether they were the army or Mai Mai militias if they were wearing camouflage gear. It was more anxiety provoking than my previous experiences.”

International Development Secretary Alok Sharma called on the international community to help.

He said: “Ebola has already taken far too many lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Shockingly, it has wiped out entire families and, a year after this outbreak started, it is showing no sign of slowing down.

“The UK has led the way in tackling this killer disease and we can be proud of our support to create a life-saving Ebola vaccine which has inoculated 180,000 people so far.

“Diseases like Ebola have no respect for borders. This could be spread beyond DRC. It is essential the rest of the international community steps up to help. If we don’t act now, many thousands more lives could be lost.”