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Ebola outbreak continues in the Congo as obstacles challenge health care workers

(CNN) — The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ebola outbreak, which began August 1, is continuing unabated in the new year.

The total number of probable patients is now 663, while 407 deaths are likely attributable to the viral illness, the Ministry of Health said Wednesday. An additional 123 people, who doctors suspect may be sick with Ebola, are currently under investigation. The ministry also reported that 237 people have recovered from the life-threatening illness.

On average, Ebola — which causes fever, severe headache and in some cases hemorrhaging — kills about half of those infected. The latest outbreak has a case fatality rate of 60%.

The current outbreak is the second-deadliest and second-largest in history, topped only by one in West Africa in 2014, when the disease killed more than 11,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Recent tweets from both Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, and Dr. Peter Salama, WHO deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response, address the “numerous” challenges of this epidemic.

Salama believes the current outbreak “is really several distinct outbreaks,” as North Kivu province remains the epicenter with additional cases occurring in neighboring Ituri province, according to the World Health Organization. The two provinces are among the most populous in the nation and border Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

Not only is North Kivu experiencing this deadly Ebola outbreak, but long-term conflict smolders there, with 50 armed groups causing intermittent violence, according to WHO. The UN public health agency estimates that more than a million refugees and internally displaced people are traveling through and out of North Kivu and Ituri, and this movement is a potential risk factor for the spread of Ebola.

Another complication: a high number of malaria cases in the region.

Local grit has overturned some of the obstacles. Though protesters of a long-delayed presidential election vandalized health care facilities in late December, on Monday, locals in Rwangomaworked to repair the damage with their own labor and at their own expense. Each inhabitant contributed 500 Congolese francs (equivalent to about a third of a US dollar).

Hope arrived in the form of a baby girl born earlier this month to a mother who had been cured of the viral disease in December. Twice the healthy baby girl has been tested for Ebola, and twice the results have come back negative.

Other positives include the Ministry’s November launch of the first randomized control trial for experimental Ebola treatments; 248 patients have received one of the four new drugs as of January 1, according to the WHO. Additionally, 60,715 people have been vaccinated since early August.

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