Modern medicine has eradicated some of humanity's plagues, but there are many places in the world where dangerous illnesses remain a common threat. Ebola has been popping up in the headlines over the past few years, especially after a 2014 outbreak infected several people in the United States. Throughout history, Ebola has been one of the world's deadliest viruses, with a high case fatality rate. The worst Ebola outbreaks stand out as some of the most horrifying epidemics of all time.
Scientists are working on a vaccine for the Ebola virus, but it has been a long road to developing a viable treatment. With each outbreak, many people unfortunately still perish. The first Ebola vaccine was distributed to select regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first half of 2018, sparking hope that Ebola deaths could become a thing of the past. The vaccine is not ready for worldwide deployment, but signs of a decreasing Ebola fatality rate are already starting to show. Reading about all the historic Ebola outbreaks will help remind us all why medical research is so important, and what an epidemic looks like without access to vaccines.
2013 - 2016 West African Ebola Virus Epidemic
Date: December 2013 - March 29, 2016
Number Infected: 28,652
Case Fatality Rate: 39%
The West African Ebola virus epidemic was the single most deadly Ebola outbreak in recorded history. Over 10,000 people perished in 10 different countries, including the United States. The virus originated in Guinea before spreading to neighboring countries. Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were the most severely impacted by the outbreak and saw the highest death toll.
International efforts to stabilize the region persisted for several years, until the director of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced an end to the crisis in March 2016. In a statement, she announced, "The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is no longer a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. However a high level of vigilance and response capacity must be maintained to ensure the ability of the countries to prevent Ebola infections and to rapidly detect and respond to flare-ups in the future."
August 2018 Democratic Republic of Congo Outbreak
Date: August 2018
Number Infected: 2,295
Case Fatality Rate: 67%
In August 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) experienced another Ebola outbreak. The DRC experienced an outbreak of a different strain in April 2018. The August epidemic is said to be Zaire Ebola, the same strain that affected West Africa in 2014-2016. As of March 2019, the epidemic became the second largest in history, claiming over 1,600 lives and infecting more than 2,000 residents.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 96,000 people have been vaccinated and 90% of those who can receive a vaccination accept. Treatment facilities face alternative risks however, as the WHO also reported that "increased security challenges, including the recent direct attacks on treatment centers, and pockets of community mistrust" have lead to more cases.
In July 2019, the WHO officially declared the outbreak in the Congo an international health emergency. They declared the emergency after a single diagnosis was confirmed in Goma, a northeastern city with an international airport.
The man who brought the virus to Goma has since passed, having traveled by several false identities. Health workers are attempting to track down any of his potential contacts. The virus has also made it to a "turbulent Congo border region" with active rebel groups since some locals refuse treatment.
The state of global emergency could "restrict the flow of goods and health care workers into affected countries," according to global health expert Alexandra Phelan. Congolese medical doctor Oly Ilunga, however, confirmed that the Congolese medical professionals accepted the state of emergency.
1976 Yambuku Ebola Outbreak
Date: August 1976
Number Infected: 318
Case Fatality Rate: 88%
One of the highest case fatality rates of any Ebola outbreak occured during the 1976 outbreak in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The plague struck the small village of Yambuku and the surrounding areas, killing the vast majority of infected patients. Only 38 of the 318 confirmed victims would survived their infection. The hospital played a large role in the spread of the infection as they had been using unsterilized needles to treat multiple patients.
1995 Zaire Outbreak
Date: April 4, 1995 - July 16, 1995
Number Infected: 317
Case Fatality Rate: 77%
Like many outbreaks, this one was first identified after a flair at a hospital. The city of Kikwit, home to 400,000 Congolese at them time, suffered through a terrifying outbreak of Ebola that would leave hundreds dead. The disease struck during a turbulent time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's history, worsening the conditions of the epidemic. International aid workers struggled in getting access to infected patients, and local health care personnel were unable to keep effectively treat the disease.