Some 7,540 doses of an experimental vaccine have been sent to the country with health workers caring for infected individuals among the first to receive it. A further 8,000 doses will be sent in the coming days.
Congo at a knife edge as number of cases of Ebola continues to rise
The Democratic Republic of Congo is at a “knife edge” as the number of people who have died in the latest outbreak of Ebola rises to 27.
Since the outbreak of the deadly haemorrhagic disease was first declared on May 8 in a rural part of the country there have been 58 cases.
And there are now seven cases in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2million people on the banks of the river Congo – this is a particular concern because of the disease’s potential to spread out of control in a densely populated urban area.
Peter Salama, director of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO), told this week’s World Health Assembly in Geneva – the agency’s decision-making body – that the organisation and its partners had mounted a rapid response. But he said the outbreak was far from over.
“We’re at the beginning of an epidemiological knife edge. The next few weeks will tell if this outbreak expands in urban areas or if we’re going to be able to keep it under control,” he said.
Dr Salama said that 600 contacts of infected patients were being followed up. But he stressed the challenges in containing the outbreak, both in the city and in the rural areas, which are heavily forested and have few roads.
“There are three separate chains of transmission and each one has the potential to expand if they are not controlled,” he said.
The UK government has pledged an extra £5m in the fight against the disease in Congo, on top of the £1m it donated at the start of the outbreak.
This new UK aid will help monitor the spread of the disease, identify and diagnose cases, trace people at risk of infection, support the vaccination campaign, and treat the sick.
The international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, said: “The UK government will continue to support the DRC and WHO to halt this deadly disease and make sure it does not cross borders. Our expert Public Health Rapid Support Team is soon to be deployed and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
The rapid support team is made up of two epidemiologist and a data scientist who will help track cases.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said the Congolese government and other agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Unicef were working well together.
“With a sense of urgency and partnership we can manage this outbreak,” he said.
The WHO has ruled that the outbreak is not yet a global health emergency but nine neighbouring countries are on high alert. The Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, which have land and river borders with the affected areas, are at particular risk as there is a constant movement of people between the countries.
The Congo authorities are also concerned that the disease could spread to the capital, Kinshasa, which is linked to Mbandaka by the Congo river, a busy highway. There are around 80 ports between the two cities.
“Each day, we have between one and two commercial boats and a dozen dugout canoes traveling between Mbandaka and Kinshasa,” said José Makila, the minister of transport in an interview.
On Wednesday, at one of the several privately run ports in the capital, there were no immediate signs of particular controls for boats and passengers arriving from the Ebola-affected areas.
However, transport officials say the river is under high surveillance and they are planning to start checks and controls in the coming days.
Jose Barahona, country director for Congo for Oxfam, said the charity was sending a team of activists to the affected areas to educate people about stopping the spread of the disease as there had been isolated cases of family members taking sick relatives home to care for them.
“People are afraid so they grab the sick person and take them back to their village to treat them. This is very dangerous so we need to pass the message on about how to treat and care for someone with Ebola,” he said.
He added: “I don’t think we’ve got to the top of the curve of cases yet. The government and partners are doing the right things, we’re scaling up our response but I don’t think we’re ahead of the outbreak yet.”