Dakar — Six months after an Ebola outbreak was confirmed in West Africa in March 2014, the World Health Organization declared an international emergency and called for help. The disease went on to ravage three countries and kill over 11,000 people.
On Tuesday, Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed two cases of the viral disease. That same day, WHO helicoptered in a team of experts to the scene and released $1 million in funding.
"I think with this rapid response we will be able to contain it," WHO emergencies director for Africa, Ibrahima Soce Fall, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Very clearly" the U.N. agency learned its lesson from the crisis, he added.
Ebola is endemic to Congo, a vast central African country whose eastern Ebola river gave the deadly virus its name when it was discovered there in the 1970s.
This is the ninth time Ebola has been recorded in Congo and comes less than a year after the last outbreak killed four people.
At least 17 people have died around the village near the northwestern town of Bikoro where the virus was detected this week, health officials said.
WHO is conducting an investigation to see how many people may have come in contact with the infected and is prepared to use a new experimental vaccine if needed, said Fall.
The agency was criticized for its slow response to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, which was the largest in history.
"In the past we didn't have this emergency system. It's completely different," Fall said, adding that this response was also faster than that in Congo last year.
The cases were first reported on May 3, and medical teams supported by WHO and medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) went to take samples two days later.
"That seems to me to be about as fast as you can reasonably expect," said Jimmy Whitworth, a specialist in epidemiology and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Whitworth said the situation was worrying, but Congo may be better prepared to detect and manage Ebola than other countries since it has had more experience.
If people exposed to the disease are identified and quarantined rapidly, it can likely be contained in an isolated area, he added.
Bikoro lies not far from the banks of the Congo River, an essential waterway for transport and commerce which runs past capital Kinshasa and Brazzaville, capital of neighbouring Congo Republic.
- Reporting By Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens