Power struggle over ebola surveillance in congo: health minister resigns

Ebola has recently been deemed a global threat. Now Congo’s Health Minister Ilunga is resigning. The reason is a new vaccine against the virus.

A child is vaccinated against Ebola in Goma Photo: reuters

Congo’s Health Minister Oly Ilunga has resigned – just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola crisis a global threat. The resignation was apparently prompted by a dispute between Health Minister Ilunga and Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi. The latter had appointed a new team on Saturday, which is now to coordinate measures against the deadly virus.

In his resignation letter, Ilunga speaks out against a new Ebola vaccine produced by the Belgian offshoot Janssen of U.S. pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, whose use is recommended by the WHO. According to Ilunga, this has not been sufficiently tested and would further fuel the Congolese people’s distrust of the treatment methods. The U.S. pharmaceutical company, in turn, says the vaccine has been tested on more than 6,000 volunteers.

Currently, an unlicensed test vaccine from U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. is being used in eastern Congo and neighboring countries. This has been used to vaccinate more than 170,000 people since the outbreak of the epidemic a year ago, with a 97.5 percent reliability rate, according to WHO.

The vaccine was developed in the wake of the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, to which more than 11,000 people succumbed. It is specifically tailored to the type of virus in Congo, according to WHO data. "We already have an effective weapon, after all," Minister Ilunga had stressed Monday at a coordination meeting with WHO officials. "Let’s focus on that."

More than 1,700 people have died from the deadly virus in eastern Congo since the epidemic broke out in July 2018, and more than 2,500 have been infected. Last week, WHO declared the outbreak in Congo along the border with Uganda and Rwanda an "international health emergency" shortly after the first Ebola case was confirmed in eastern Congo’s megacity of Goma.

The appointment of a new Ebola coordinator can be interpreted as a political power play. Ilunga, who had previously been in charge, had been appointed minister by former President Joseph Kabila, while belonging to Tshisekedi’s opposition UDPS (Union for Democratic and Social Progress) party. Ilunga holds a senior position at the Belgian hospital where Tshisekedi’s father and opposition leader etienne Tshisekedi was treated and died in 2016. For the UDPS and son Tshisekedi, Ilunga was considered a traitor.