DR Congo Health Minister Resigns After President Takes Control Of Ebola Emergency

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Health Minister, Oly Iluga, resigned Monday, following his removal Saturday as the head of the country’s Ebola response – after the country’s President Felix Tshisekedi placed management of the crisis under direct presidential supervision.

DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga speaking at the World Health Assembly in May 2019.

“As a result of your decision to place the response to the Ebola outbreak under your direct supervision… I hereby submit my resignation as health minister,” Oly Ilunga wrote to President Felix Tshisekedi, in a letter in French, posted on Ilunga’s Twitter page. “As in any war, because that is what this is, the lines of authority must be clearly identified and defined. There cannot be several centres of decision-making for risk of creating confusion…”

Iluga also voiced his concerns over the possible introduction of a second experimental vaccine into the battle against the deadly virus, calling it an “experiment.”

Proponents of introducing the second vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, have pushed to deploy the 1.5 million available doses of the vaccine in peripheral zones where Ebola could potentially spread, reserving use of the field-tested Merck vaccine for front-line response.

Only 300,000 doses of the Merck vaccine have been produced, and more than 164,000 people have already been vaccinated; although since the original vaccine dose has since been reduced by almost half, estimates vary as to how many doses are left.

But Iluga said that it would be “illusory” to think that the new J&J vaccine, which requires two doses over the course of several weeks to provoke immunity, could play a decisive role in the course of the Ebola epidemic.

Iluga’s resignation followed on the heels of WHO’s announcement last Wednesday (17 July) of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) during a week of heightened concern over possible spread of Ebola beyond the borders of DRC and into neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, as well as Burundi and South Sudan.

While no fresh Ebola cases have yet been reported outside of DRC, Uganda went on high alert after an infected fish-monger visited a Ugandan market in a border community on 11 July, repeatedly vomiting in the public market, before returning to DRC where she died on 15 July.

WHO officials said at last week’s press conference announcing the Ebola emergency that discussions were underway with the DRC government about deployment of the second vaccine. Previous Ministry of Health reservations had centred around concerns that introduction of a second vaccine might stimulate community misunderstandings, after a hard-fought campaign to win support for the use of the Merck vaccine in Ebola-affected communities. The Merck vaccine has been deployed in a “ring vaccine” strategy, immunizing health workers and community members suspected of having come into contact with other Ebola victims.

However, judging from the 32 new Ebola cases that were reported by the DRC Ministry of Health over just the past two days, Friday and Saturday, that strategy has not yet managed to break the chain of continued infection, particularly in the North Kivu city of Beni, where 16 of those new cases were reported. Some 1737 people have died so far from Ebola since the outbreak began on 1 August, while 729 have recovered, according to the most recent DRC Health Ministry report.

DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga’s letter of resignation, posted today on his Twitter account @OlyIlunga.

Image Credits: WHO/Cipriani.

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