The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is rapidly mobilising to respond to an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The outbreak, which was first confirmed in the rural northwest of the country on May 8, entered an alarming phase when one case was confirmed in Mbandaka, a densely populated urban city with 1.2 million inhabitants.

The proximity of Mbandaka to the major arteries to Kinshasa and the neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville adds to the risk of this new phase. As of May 18, 45 cases, including 14 confirmed by laboratory, and 25 deaths have been recorded. The latest risk assessment from the World Health Organization (WHO) calls this a Grade 3 emergency. Although there has been no international declaration, the IRC stresses the importance to learn the lessons of the past and act within days, not weeks, to contain the spread of the disease.

Michelle Gayer, Director of Emergency Health at International Rescue Committee said: “The IRC is working with the WHO, the government of the DRC and NGO partners to surge combined medical, environmental health and logistics teams into Mbakanda City to lend support to the major hospitals/health facilities. Working closely with local health authorities, we aim to strengthen triage & the identification of Ebola cases, set up isolation units & ensure rigorous case management & infection prevention and control practices in existing health facilities. In this way, we hope to increase their capacity to cope with and contribute to containing the outbreak with government & other partners.”

The IRC is a major health actor in DRC and was a leading responder to the ebola outbreak in 2014/15 in West Africa. IRC’s experience, expertise and ability to mobilise quickly can have a major impact on improving the international community’s response to the outbreak.

“The critical importance of acting early cannot be overstated. The longer we wait to mobilise a response, the more people will become infected and the more difficult it will become to contain this outbreak. As we all can remember - the lives of millions are at stake,” Gayer said.

The failure to anticipate and adapt to political realities undermined the response effort during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. The IRC’s 2016 report, The Ebola Lessons Reader, provides a comprehensive review of Ebola reports following the 2014 outbreak. The report determines that despite actionable insights contained in the literature, it gives inadequate attention to the politics of poor, post-conflict countries, and the politics of the UN, NGOs and the international aid world. Earlier identification and response to these factors can mitigate the risk of an outbreak evolving into a catastrophic epidemic.