KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Ebola, the deadly virus that has increasingly struck Africa in recent years, is once again threatening a violence-scarred region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, three months after the health authorities in the country declared the last outbreak vanquished.
The Health Ministry announced Sunday that the wife of a farmer who had survived the disease died Feb. 3, three days after she first showed symptoms, at a hospital in Butembo, a city of 700,000 in North Kivu province. A blood analysis on the woman performed in Butembo came back positive for the virus, the ministry said.
The World Health Organization said in a statement that its public health researchers were investigating, that more than 70 contacts of the victim had been identified and that disinfection was underway of the sites she was known to have visited.
It was not immediately clear whether the victim’s infection was traceable to the Ebola outbreak that devastated North Kivu for nearly two years starting in August 2018. It killed more than 2,000 people.
That outbreak, which was declared over in June, was the country’s 10th and the second-worst on record, punctuated by recurrent rebel violence in the region and attacks on health workers. Just as it was abating, an 11th outbreak was declared in the western part of the country, which killed 55 people and was declared defeated in November.
The WHO statement said blood samples from the woman who died Feb. 3 had been sent to the National Institute of Biomedical Research’s main laboratory in Kinshasa for genome sequencing to identify the strain of the virus that killed her.
News of the infection came as the Democratic Republic of Congo, like much of Africa, is contending with new waves of infection from the coronavirus, which has already placed severe strains on public-health resources.
While it is too early to assess the seriousness of the new Ebola outbreak, humanitarian groups that operate in the Democratic Republic of Congo said they feared the worst because of its history of outbreaks since Ebola was first discovered there in 1976, when the country was known as Zaire. The latest outbreak would be the fifth over the past four years in the country, which is more than three times the size of Texas.
“We know that Ebola is endemic in this region, but we cannot take anything for granted and we must take swift action to stop the spread,” said Whitney Elmer, the director of operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Mercy Corps, the international charity.
Despite the development of vaccines for Ebola in recent years, it remains one of the most deadly and contagious viruses. Most cases are caused by human-to-human transmission through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or secretions. Infection risk remains high after death, which means the bodies of victims must be handled by people wearing protective equipment and must be buried immediately.
The worst Ebola epidemic in history afflicted the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from March 2014 to June 2016. More than 28,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died.