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Congo to start school year on time to help battle Ebola and polio

Data: Ministry of Health DRC; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Government officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced this week they will start the school year on time on Sept. 3, as the deadly Ebola outbreak seems to have lessened in intensity (see chart above) but worries linger especially as 3 community deaths were reported today.

What's new: The concern is particularly over the 3 people who apparently died outside of quarantined treatment centers, since the Ebola virus remains highly infectious after death. Plus, in the midst of handling Ebola, health officials continue to deal with an outbreak of a rarer type of polio, and have begun a vaccination campaign in areas not affected by Ebola, per Jessica Ilunga, spokesperson for DRC's Ministry of Health.

Ebola update: While the number of new cases of Ebola has lessened, Llunga says they remain "vigilant." She says:

"An Ebola outbreak works by waves. We had the first wave of cases who were contaminated before or just after the declaration of the outbreak. But there is a potential second wave of cases which are the people who were contaminated by the first wave and are in their incubation period."
"Vaccination is the only effective method to quickly break the transmission chain. That’s why our teams have been working around the clock to identify contacts and contacts of contacts, and vaccinate them as quickly as possible. Over the next few days, many contacts will come out of the 21-day surveillance period and we’ll know to what extend we managed to break the transmission chain."

The decision to start school on time in the affected region containing 250 schools is partly due to the belief they may be in greater danger of contracting the disease by playing unsupervised in the community, Llunga says. She adds:

"There is a greater risk of having kids contaminated at home or on the streets than at school where measures will be put in place to protect them against the virus. And if one child develop the disease, we will be able to identify him quickly and to give him the appropriate treatment. Furthermore, it will be also easier to identify contacts and vaccinate them."

The situation remains dire in the affected provinces, WHO says, partly due to "intense insecurity and a worsening humanitarian crisis, with over one million internally displaced people and a continuous movement of refugees to neighbouring countries... [DRC] is also experiencing multiple disease outbreaks, including circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, cholera, measles, monkeypox, etc."

  • Llunga says they've started a vaccination campaign for children 5 and under against the derived poliovirus that will focus on 16 at-risk provinces to try and eradicate the virus.
  • WHO officials have expressed concern that some areas will not receive needed vaccinations for polio and Ebola due to the conflict zones.

The school year plan: The government will teach the children how to conduct good hygiene practices, such as washing their hands with chlorinated water that will be provided at the schools. Directors and school teachers will receive training on Ebola, including prevention methods and measures to deal with suspicious signs of infection.

  • Besides training, UNICEF says it will distribute 500 laser thermometers (2/school) to monitor the health situation of children, install 1,500 hand-washing units (6/school) and distribute megaphones and prevention posters in every school.

Editor's note: This was updated with the latest Ebola data available.