Infected EBOLA carriers escape quarantine hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Image: Infected EBOLA carriers escape quarantine hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo

A new and growing Ebola outbreak is hitting the Democratic Republic of Congo, and additional concerns have been raised as three infected people escaped their quarantine hospital, potentially infecting countless others.

The three patients had been quarantined in the northwestern city of Mbandaka, a port city with a population of nearly 1.2 million. Two of the patients have passed away, while a third has been found alive and brought back to the hospital for observation. Medecins Sans Frontieres said that two of the escapees had been brought by their families to a church to pray.

World Health Organization Spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told ABC News that while the incident was very concerning, it isn’t unusual for people to wish to spend their final moments in their homes with loved ones. WHO staff is now redoubling its efforts to track down everyone who might have come into contact with these patients.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Ebola is so easily spread. Exposure to the body, fluids, or even personal items of someone who has died from the disease can spread it easily, something that not everyone there is aware of. The WHO is working with community and religious leaders to get the word out in hopes of keeping infections to a minimum.

Another challenge is the fact that traditional practices in the area don’t match up with health recommendations, particularly when it comes to funeral practices. In addition, some of the rural population does not believe in Ebola in the first place and has no faith in the ability of Western medicine to help.

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Workers from the WHO and Oxfam are going door to door to let everyone know what hygienic precautions they can take to lower their chances of contracting the deadly disease. They’re also letting them know about symptoms to look out for, which include headache, muscle pain, fatigue, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, rash, and bleeding or bruising.

How far will the current outbreak spread?

Until recently, the current Ebola outbreak had been confined to the country’s rural areas, but it has now made its way to bigger cities like Mbandaka, where it has the potential to spread to many more people. The city’s location along the Congo River and its use as a transit hub is raising fears about just how far the outbreak could spread. The city of Kinshasa, which has a population of 10 million, is just downstream, and across the river is the Republic of the Congo’s capital, Brazzaville.

So far, 58 people have reported hemorrhagic fever symptoms in the country, although it’s likely that there are many more cases going unreported given the general mistrust of doctors in the country. Thirty cases have tested positive for Ebola, 14 are suspected, and 14 are considered probable. Some of the infected include health care workers. Twenty-two people have died so far in what is the country’s ninth outbreak since the deadly virus was first identified in 1976, and the outbreak only started earlier this month.

Experts have said that the outbreak has now reached a critical point, with the next few weeks indicating whether they’ll be able to keep the outbreak under control or if it will hit urban areas in full force. Health workers have a list of more than 600 people who are known to have come into contact with confirmed cases, and they are working hard to keep it from becoming a repeat of past outbreaks. One of the biggest Ebola outbreaks struck Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia between 2013 and 2016, killing more than 11,300 people.

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This flu season has now reached pandemic levels (but it’s not technically a pandemic)

This flu season is turning out to be so intense that the number of people seeking care at doctors’ offices and emergency rooms has surged to levels not reported since the peak of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, federal officials said Friday.

For yet another week, the flu continues to get worse. “We were hoping to have better news,” said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This does not mean we’re having a pandemic,” Schuchat said. “But it is a signal of how very intense the flu season has been. We may be on track to break some recent records.”

Pandemics occur when there is a new strain of virus for which people have no previous exposure. That’s not the case here, because the seasonal strains that are circulating this year are not new. But the predominant one, H3N2, is a particularly nasty strain that is associated with more complications, hospitalizations and deaths, especially among children, those older than 65 and people with certain chronic conditions.

Another 10 children died in the week ending Feb. 2, bringing the total number of child deaths since this flu season began to at least 63. This is the number of reported deaths and probably does not include all children who have died. States are not required to report adult flu deaths.

Flu activity is still widespread across the country, the latest data show. Overall hospitalizations are also now significantly higher than what officials have normally seen this time of year since CDC began using this tracking system in 2010, Schuchat said. In particular, officials are seeing unusually high levels of hospitalizations in non-elderly adults, with the rates for 50-to-64-year-olds significantly higher than what they were at the same period in the severe 2014-2015 season with the same predominant flu strain.

The latest weekly report shows 1 out of every 13 doctor visits last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu, matching the peak levels during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. It was higher than any other seasonal flu season since 2003, when officials changed the way flu is tracked.

“We don’t have any signs of hospitalizations leveling off yet,” Schuchat said in a telephone briefing for reporters.

Concern over the deadly flu season was one reason Sen. John McCain delayed his return to Washington during key legislative deliberations, his daughter Meghan said Wednesday.

In an interview with Politico’s “Women Rule” podcast, the Arizona Republican’s daughter said her father, recovering from chemotherapy for aggressive brain cancer and a viral infection in December, is taking precautions that are keeping him in Arizona.

While the H3N2 strain, a type of influenza A virus, continues to dominate, officials are now also seeing increases in the proportion of influenza B viruses in this 11th week of the flu season.

One reason for this unusually intense flu season is probably the vaccine’s lower effectiveness against the predominant strain. Canadian researchers recently suggested the H3N2 component of the vaccine is about 17 percent effective in preventing infection.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that” for the vaccine’s effectiveness against the H3N2 in the United States, Schuchat said. But she and others have said the vaccine performs better against other strains, and is about 55 percent effective against influenza B viruses that are on the rise. Flu shots also reduce the severity of illness. CDC is expected to soon release a preliminary analysis of this season’s vaccine effectiveness.

Officials say it is not too late to get a flu shot. They don’t know how long this season will last — it has yet to reach its peak — and it is possible to get infected by flu more than once.

Angie Barwise, a 58-year-old mother and grandmother from Fort Worth, was diagnosed with the flu twice this season and died last week following complications from the illness. She had been diagnosed around the holidays with the flu, along with bronchitis and strep, her family told Fox affiliate KDFW. Her family said she had not received the vaccine.

Doctors gave her antibiotics and the antiviral medication Tamiflu, and she started to bounce back. But almost exactly a month later, her family said, she was in the emergency room with a different strain of the virus. But this time, KDFW reported, Barwise also had pneumonia and went into in septic shock, a life-threatening medical condition and a known complication of the virus, according to CDC.

On Saturday — a week after her second bout of the flu began — she died.

“I’ve outlived my own daughter,” her mother, Eileen Smith, told the news station this week. “I’m 83 years old, and I’ve outlived her. It shouldn’t be that way.”

As health-care professionals scramble to combat the virus and care for people seeking treatment, there continue to be local shortages of antiviral medication, officials said. Unlike most years when flu activity starts and ends at different times and at different places across the country, virtually the entire country has been slammed with intense levels of flu at the same time, so there are more prescriptions for antiviral drugs than previous years, Schuchat said.

CDC officials are working with pharmacies, health plans and others in the health-care system to have pharmacies stock larger amounts of medicine and allow brand-name drugs to be substituted for generics, which often carry lower out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

Still, the cost of prescription antivirals has led some patients to hesitate using them, with tragic consequences.

Heather Holland, a schoolteacher from Willow Park, Tex., was recently diagnosed with the flu and prescribed the generic form of Tamiflu. But her husband, Frank, told the Wall Street Journal that once she discovered it cost her $116 under her insurance plan, she decided against it.

“It’s principle with her. She’s a very frugal person in general, always has been,” he said.

Frank Holland told the Journal that when he found out that his wife had refused to fill the prescription, he did it. “I made her start taking it,” he told the newspaper.

But Holland was not able to fight the flu — her family said she died Feb. 4, less than a week after she first started to experience symptoms of the virus.

Worst Flu Season Since 2009 Hitting Boomers Hard

The flu has sent more people to the doctor this year than in any season since the 2009 pandemic, health officials said Friday as they warned that this flu season was shaping up to be active and severe.

man getting vaccine

While the hospitalization rates are highest among adults 65 and older, health officials said baby boomers — adults ages 50 to 64 — were the next most likely to be hospitalized.

“This is a change,” said Dan Jernigan, MD, director of the CDC’s Influenza Division. Young children are typically the second most likely to be hospitalized with flu.

Included in the updated numbers this week was news of seven more flu deaths among kids. So far this season, 37 children have died of the flu.

Flu activity has been higher in the U.S. for 9 weeks. Flu seasons typically last 16 to 20 weeks, putting the nation at the halfway point of its feverish and aching misery.

Jernigan pointed to a couple of reasons that middle-aged adults might be more likely to get the flu this season: biology and behavior.

How a person responds to the circulating flu depends, in part, on the first flu strains they were exposed to as children — an immune phenomenon called imprinting. Jernigan suspects that the flu strains that imprinted on baby boomers years ago are very different from the kinds that are going around now, making boomers more vulnerable.

They’re also less likely to get vaccinated. A 2015 study found that while almost three-quarters of adults over 65 get an annual flu shot, less than half of middle-aged adults do.

“It has been a tough flu season so far this year. While flu activity is starting to go down in some areas, it remains high in much of the U.S. and in some areas is still rising,” Jernigan said.

He said there were signs in California and some Western states — where the flu has packed hospitals — that the epidemic was slowing. In New York, on the other hand, there were indications that the season was just gaining steam.

Jernigan said that this season was tracking much like the 2014-2015 season, which hospitalized nearly three quarters of a million Americans.

“We would expect, at the end of this season, to have somewhere around this number,” he said.

If you are a healthy adult, meaning that you don’t have another medical condition like asthma or diabetes or pregnancy, you’re probably OK dealing with the flu at home, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“Take lots of fluid. Force yourself to sit up every 15 or 20 minutes and sip on some water,” he says. “It’s very, very important, because as you become dehydrated and you’re horizontal, you’re more likely to develop the complication of pneumonia.”

Adults 65 and older; those who have a medical condition like heart disease or diabetes; pregnant women; and children under 5 should get to the doctor within 48 hours of their first symptoms. Doctors can prescribe antiviral medications that can lessen the chance of severe complications.

Symptoms that should send anyone — children or adults — for immediate medical attention include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • A temperature of 103 F or higher and a fever that doesn’t come down over time or with medication.
  • Ear pain (sometimes a sign in kids of a viral infection)

Schaffner says he would add another sign to the list: Flu causes a dry cough. If you instead develop a wet cough that begins to bring up green, yellow, or blood-streaked phlegm, it’s time to get to the hospital, since that can be a sign of pneumonia.

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, urged people with any symptoms of the flu, including headache, body aches, cough, and fever, to stay home. She also urged people to wash their hands frequently, especially if they’re caring for someone who’s sick, to prevent the spread of the virus.

The CDC recommends antiviral medications that can shorten how long the flu lasts and blunt its symptoms, especially when they are given at the first sign of illness. Health officials said they are aware that some of the medications are in short supply in some areas. Jernigan said it’s worth calling ahead to your pharmacy to make sure they’re in stock.

‘Unpredictable pandemics’ warning

The world needs to be prepared for “unpredictable pandemics” from viruses making the leap from animals to people, scientists in Taiwan say.

Their warning follows the first reported case of a common bird flu, H6N1, being detected in a woman, earlier this year.

The patient recovered and no other cases have been detected.

But the Lancet Respiratory Medicine report said “intensive” monitoring of bird flu was needed.

In May 2013, the first human case of an H6N1 bird flu was detected in a woman in Taiwan. One of her neighbours bred ducks, geese and chickens – although the precise source of the infection has not been detected.

Many sub-types of influenza, such as those that cause seasonal flu or the swine flu pandemic, are known to infect people, but H6N1 is not one of them.

The report, by the Centres for Disease Control in Taiwan, said: “The occurrence of a human case of H6N1 infection shows the unpredictability of influenza viruses.


“Our report highlights the need for influenza pandemic preparedness , including intensive surveillance for ever evolving avian influenza viruses.”

Prof Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, said these infections may have happened in the past but improved technology had meant this one had been discovered.

She said: ” Is this a truly new thing or are we now just better at seeing it?”

She told the BBC she expected far more of these cases to be reported in the next few years as more hospitals were geared up to look for novel bird flus.

Prof Barclay added: “This is a single case with no evidence of human transmission, but as always we should keep an eye on it and do studies to see how close it is to being able to spread between humans.”

Swine flu pandemic infected at least one in five Indians.