The UN World Health Organization in Geneva said on Monday that the continuing deadly Ebola outbreak has now spread to Goma, a key transit hub in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a potential 'game changer' said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesis, WHO head.
Tedros convened a meeting to discus the possibility of declaring the outbreak a global emergency.
"Goma is a warning," the World Health Organization's emergencies chief, Mike Ryan, told reporters in Geneva.
Tedros said WHO is "confident" that the measures put in place would stop the spread of the deadly hemmorghagic fever, however. The UN global health agency is working closely with Congolese officials.
This latest spread stems from a pastor who rode a bus from the northeast to Goma, the eastern regional capital. He became the first confirmed case there after reaching Goma on Sunday.
Authorities have identified the two buses he took before arriving in Goma; these people will need to be screened.
The pastor visited seven churches throughout his trip to the northeast, including Butembo, one of the hardest hit towns. He allegedly put his hands on many people, including those possibly infected with the virus. He felt ill last Tuesday, and a nurse visited him before embarking on his journey, according to local health authorities.
Health checks evaded
The various buses the pastor traveled stopped for three roadside health checkpoints, where passengers got off the bus and had their temperature taken after washing their hands.
"During the checks, he did not seem to show signs of the disease. In addition, at each checkpoint he wrote different names and surnames on the lists of travelers, probably indicating his desire to hide his identity and state of health," according to the regional Congolese health ministry.
The pastor went for medical treatment in Goma on arrival, where health workers suspected he had the disease, which was confirmed by a lab test.
While local officials say he is currently being treated at an Ebola treatment center in Goma, North Kivu Governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita said that he was swiftly taken back to Butembo for treatment there.
WHO's emergencies chief Ryan said on Monday that 60 who had been on the same buses as the pastor have been identified.
"We are dealing with the 60 contacts we have now," he said.
"We have found and vaccinated 30, and hopefully we will have (vaccinated) the other 30 in the next 24 hours," said Ryan.
Congolese health authorities are trying to keep the population calm as many fear the fever could spread.
The pastor's case was "not only was detected at an early stage but also was isolated immediately, avoiding any further contamination," said Governor Kasivita in a statement.
"I call on the population of the city of Goma and its outskirts to keep calm... (and) cooperate with response teams by observing hygiene and prevention measures and notifying any suspected case of Ebola," he said.
WHO maintains that there is a small chance that Ebola could spread beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo, even though it is bordered by a number of countries, including Rwanda, just on the other side of Goma.
Additionally, those who have been identified as high risk and advised not to travel have defied health authorities and have left the area, including a woman who went within 70 kilometres from DRC's border with South Sudan.
A Ugandan family who was infected while in Congo did cross the border to return to Uganda; two family members died, but no one they came into contact with has contracted Ebola during the 21-day incubation period after being exposed.
Hopes for the vaccine
The Democratic Republic of Congo is considered to be highly prepared for further outbreak; more than 3,000 health workers have been vaccinated against the disease. Rwanda has also taken preventative measures in case it spreads across the border.
The vaccine is experimental, but health authorities have been pleased with its effectiveness. It was fast-tracked in an effort to avoid the 2014-2016 epidemic primarily in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where more than 11,300 people died.
Researchers have also seen its effectiveness for those who have already been exposed to the disease, lowering the fatality rate. A number of rumours circulating that the vaccine causes Ebola have made some high-risk individuals refuse the vaccine.
According to the latest health ministry figures, issued on Saturday, 1,655 people have died from the notorious haemorrhagic virus since August 1 last year, when the disease broke out in North Kivu and spread to neighbouring Ituri.
Nearly 700 people have been cured, and more than 160,000 been vaccinated.