23 May 2018

Congo-Kinshasa: Ebola Virus Has 'Potential to Expand' WHO Reports

Photo: UNMEER / Martine Perret
Ebola vaccine (file photo).

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the Ebola virus in the DRC could spread to other countries. Congo's neighbors have started taking steps to stem a possible cross-border spread of the disease.

Dr. Peter Salama, the World Health Organization (WHO)'s emergency response chief, warned Wednesday the Ebola outbreak in West Africa's Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a "potential to expand."

"We are on the epidemiological knife edge," Salama told a special meeting of WHO member states in Geneva on Wednesday.

"The next few weeks will really tell if this outbreak is going to expand to urban areas or if we are going to be able to keep it under control," he added.

Last Thursday, a first case of Ebola was reported in Mbandaka, a Congolese city of around 1.2 million people. So far seven cases have surfaced in the city.

"An urban case means that it can spread quickly. That is another challenge," WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the Geneva conference.

The international health agency said Wednesday there has been 58 cases since the outbreak was declared on May 8, of which 27 have been deaths.

This is the ninth Ebola outbreak in Congo in four decades. The last major Ebola outbreak hit the eastern African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, killing some 11,000 people.

Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional chief for Africa, said that Congo's neighboring countries had begun preparations to prevent Congo Ebola from entering their borders.

"All nine countries have initiated their readiness activities," Moeti said.

"There is constant movement of people through the porous borders," Moeti said, adding that travelers are using waterways and roads.

The WHO has been assisting Congo's neighbors, providing them protective gear, thermometers and rapid diagnostic test kits that would help authorities detect and treat possible Ebola infections.

New cases

Reuters news agency quoted Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) as saying that two of three Ebola patients who evaded quarantine in Congo have died.

Henri Gray, the head of MSF, said Wednesday the third Ebola patient was currently under observation.

Congo's health ministry confirmed six new and two suspected Ebola cases in the country as health workers in Mbandaka received vaccinations. The vaccination drive will initially target 600 people.

A vaccine called VSV-EBOV has been developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. It was subsequently taken over by Merck Inc. but is considered an investigational therapeutic and has not yet been licensed. Merck is not charging for supplies and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is providing $1 million (€850,000) towards the deployment of health workers, transport and other support.

"In the next five days, 100 people must be vaccinated, including 70 health professionals," Health Minister Oly Ilunga said. "The priority of the government is to ensure that all these brave health professionals can do their job safely."

Front-line health workers are especially at risk of contracting Ebola, a near-fatal disease that causes a hemorrhagic fever that often leads to massive internal bleeding.

Local health officials have reported a number of patients showing symptoms of hemorrhagic fever and deaths in the affected area. The disease has resurfaced nearly 10 months after the end of an earlier outbreak.

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