Ebola in DRC: The Next Few Weeks Are Critical

A nurse working with the WHO shows a bottle containing Ebola vaccine in Mbandaka, May 21, 2018.
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A nurse working with the WHO shows a bottle containing Ebola vaccine in Mbandaka, May 21, 2018. Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

GENEVA – The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to worsen with an updated total of 58 cases and 27 deaths, according to new data announced this morning at the World Health Assembly.

While the lack of an explosive surge in case numbers may seem reassuring, WHO officials caution that it’s still early days in the response to an outbreak that was first confirmed on May 8. “We’re on the epidemiological knife edge of this response,” said Peter Salama, WHO’s deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response. “The next few weeks will really tell if the outbreak will expand to urban areas or if we will be able to keep it under control.”

Most of the cases have been found in several epicenters in remote, forested areas of northwestern DRC, making it difficult for supplies and responders to reach people affected. The area lacks consistent electrical power, making it especially challenging to preserve the vaccine at the required 60 – 80  degrees C.

Health officials are closely following 3 separate infection chains in the city of Mbandaka, which is home to 1.2 million people and is situated on the Congo river. The people had been exposed to Ebola in the in Bikoro health zone in northwestern DRC during visits to a funeral, a health facility and a church ceremony, he said.

DRC health workers are currently following 600 contacts of people who were infected (or believed to have been infected). “It’s really the detective work of epidemiology that will make or break the response to this outbreak,” Salama said.

In addition, a vaccination campaign started on Monday, targeting those most at risk, said Zénon Mukongo Ngay, DRC’s Permanent Representative to the UN. The DRC’s health minister was personally leading the vaccination campaign, Ngay said.  

About 100 people are expected to receive the unlicensed Ebola vaccine. A particular concern for officials are the 5 health care providers who had been infected and others who are at risk of exposure. A dozen health professionals had volunteered to receive the vaccine.

“The problem is really serious,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told #WHA17 delegates. Tedros visited visited Bikoro on May 13 after having to wake up UN Secretary-General António Guterres to get permission to charter a helicopter to reach one of the outbreak’s epicenters.

Tedros said he’s particularly worried about Ebola cases spreading to neighboring countries via the Congo river, which functions as a highway for the region. He added that he’s encouraged by the DRC’s transparency about the outbreak and especially its response.

“Together with a sense of urgency and partnership, we can manage this outbreak,” he said.

 

Ed Note: See the latest news from #WHA71 here.

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