There’s a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa, this time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s the worst case ever documented in the DRC, according to Doctors Without Borders, and the second largest outbreak recorded anywhere. So far, more than 1,200 people have died. An Ebola epidemic in the west African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia killed 11,000 between 2014 and 2016.
Dr. Rick Sacra and his wife, Debbie, of Holden, Mass., are all too familiar with the Ebola virus. In 2014, Sacra was the third American to contract the Ebola virus, while working as a Christian missionary doctor in Liberia. He was flown back to the U.S. for treatment, survived, and is now immune to it.
Sacra, who has lived with his wife and three sons in Liberia for more than 20 years but is back in the U.S. for six weeks to visit family, said there’s good news and bad news with the situation in the DRC.
The good news is that there is a vaccine being used that is 98% effective, but isn't yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, most health care workers in the Congo who are treating patients have received the vaccine.
Sacra said the bad news is the ongoing political conflict in the DRC, which has escalated the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic.
“It’s been unstable for a long time, and then now you add this health crisis on top of that political instability,” Sacra said. “And so, there's a lot of distrust. There are rumors circulating that this other faction brought the virus here, and so it just has heated up and made these conflicts even worse.”
And things have gotten worse. So far, in addition to the deaths in the DRC from the virus, recent reports say armed militias are attacking treatment centers and health care workers.
“In February and March, we had two attacks on these Ebola treatment centers and we were forced to evacuate our teams and we hand it over to the Ministry of Health,” said John Johnson, an emergency coordinator with Doctors Without Borders who is in the North Kivu province in the DRC.
“Ebola is a terrifying disease and it’s a disease that’s not terribly well known, especially in this area,” Johnson said. The Ebola virus, which generally lives in forest animals like monkeys and bats, is spread through body fluids and causes fevers and attacks the immune system.
Johnson said the situation in the DRC is becoming ever more dire, and he's still seeing a lot of Ebola cases every week.
“After each violent event or attack, you see a bump in the number of cases in the days following,” he said. “The last 10 weeks have been the worst 10 weeks of the epidemic. We’re not on the other side of the hill yet. We still have a long way to go.”
When Dr. Rick Sacra came down with the virus in 2014, he was caring for pregnant women in the Eternal Love Winning Africa, or ELWA, hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
When Sacra was brought to Nebraska for treatment, there was concern that the virus could spread throughout the U.S. Now, with the outbreak in the DRC, fear is spiking once again. But Sacra said that fear was and is overblown.
“Nobody ever got Ebola from sitting on a bus or sitting in an apartment next to somebody here in the U.S,” said Sacra.
In January, Sacra was awarded for his work in Liberia with the 2018 Gerson L’Chaim Prize for Outstanding Medical Missionary Service by African Mission Healthcare. The award comes with a $500,000 prize. Sacra plans to use the money to train Liberian medical students and to hopefully wipe out Ebola.
”I appreciate the recognition, but you know, on the other hand, I’m just an ordinary guy. I happen to be doing a line of work that’s maybe a little different than my neighbors here in Holden," Sacra said. "I’m thankful again to God for the privilege of having served, and this is going to open doors for us, for a lot of things, help us make a bigger impact there in our community and in Liberia.”