Global responders say the unfolding Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is having an outsized impact on women and children, due in part to their societal roles and the transmission of the disease among families.
The World Health Organization says females account for 62 percent of the cases in which gender was reported, or 280 out of 450.
“There is not usually a difference between percentage of men or women infected,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. “They are usually about equal.”
Children have accounted for about a quarter of the cases reported amid the outbreak, which is the second-worst since Ebola was discovered about four decades ago.
The World Health Organization is offering a few theories on why these groups are disproportionately impacted by Ebola, an often-fatal disease that is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads from human to human through the bodily fluids of people who exhibit symptoms.
Traditional burial practices have been the source of transmission amid the outbreak — a similar problem was rampant during the West African outbreak earlier in the decade.
Data show that 46 percent of infected women in the current outbreak reported attending funerals, compared to 31 percent of infected men who reported doing so. Women may have specific roles at the ceremonies, such as preparing the body for burial, that place them at greater risk.
Women are more likely to have taken care of loved ones who may be sick — washing their soiled clothes is one practice that poses danger — and can pass the disease onto their children.
They also frequent health facilities more often. Seeking medical attention “could increase their rate of diagnosis and, if they are being seen for a non-Ebola illness, increase their chances of being exposed in a health care facility,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
An uptick in malaria is likely contributed to the number of cases in children, since they may be exposed to Ebola in health care setting without adequate protocols for preventing infection, according to WHO.
Global aid workers and the DRC health ministry are using trial vaccines and experimental therapies to get a handle on the outbreak at large, though the response is being thwarted by violence in the region.
All told, disease trackers have documented 471 confirmed or suspected cases and 273 deaths from the outbreaks.
It’s the worst outbreak in DRC’s history, and trails only the massive 2014-2016 outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — which killed more than 11,000 — on a global scale.
WHO says it doesn’t consider the ongoing outbreak to be a global emergency, though it’s worried it will spread within the region.
“The risk of the outbreak spreading to other provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as to neighboring countries, remains very high,” it said.
Responders are particularly worried about potential transmission in Butembo, a large commercial hub in eastern DRC, and two smaller cities nearby.
“These places have all seen an increase in confirmed cases of Ebola, as well as some resistance from the community,” a key group, Médecins Sans Frontières, reported this month. “For now, the number of cases in Butembo’s city centre is low, but case numbers are rising quickly in its eastern suburbs and outlying isolated districts.”
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