Ebola Outbreak Enters ‘New Phase’ as It Reaches Congolese City

(Bloomberg) -- The Democratic Republic of Congo’s health minister said an outbreak of Ebola has entered a “new phase” after a case was confirmed in Mbandaka, a northwestern city of 1.2 million people.

The person carrying the disease was one of two suspected cases in Mbandaka that were tested, minister Oly Ilunga said in a statement Wednesday. Prior to the confirmation of the latest case, only two other people had tested positive for the disease near the remote town of Bikoro, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Mbandaka by road.

Ebola Outbreak Enters ‘New Phase’ as It Reaches Congolese City

Mbandaka is situated on the Congo River, which links the area to the capital, Kinshasa, a city of about 12 million, and Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo. The other towns of Equateur province, both upstream and downstream, have been “placed under surveillance,” according to Ilunga.

“A major urban outbreak” in Mbandaka is “an immediate risk,” Peter Salama, the World Health Organization’s deputy director-general for emergency response, said on May 11. “Once Ebola gets into urban areas, especially poor urban slums, it’s very difficult to get rid of the disease.”

Ninth Outbreak

Congo confirmed the latest outbreak of Ebola on May 8, the ninth occurrence of the disease in the central African nation since it was first discovered there in 1976. As of May 15, the Health Ministry has reported 44 suspected cases of Ebola, three of which have been confirmed. There have been 23 deaths from 20 suspect and 21 probable cases of the disease, the ministry said Wednesday.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday received an air consignment of thousands of doses of an unlicensed VSV-EBOV vaccine developed by Merck & Co. that was dispatched by the WHO from Geneva. The treatment was trialed successfully in Guinea during a major outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people between 2014 and 2016. Congo’s government authorized the use of the vaccine last week.

The doses are being stored in Kinshasa until authorities are sure the vaccine can be transported to Mbandaka and Bikoro -- and kept there -- at a sufficiently low temperature. Electricity supply in the region is unreliable.

‘Very Concerning’

“The arrival of Ebola in an urban area is very concerning and WHO and partners are working together to rapidly scale up the search for all contacts of the confirmed case in the Mbandaka area,” Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said in the statement.

The WHO is working with Medecins Sans Frontieres and other partners to strengthen the capacity of health facilities to treat Ebola patients in special isolation wards, the United Nations body said in a statement.

The Health Ministry and its partners plan to launch a targeted program to vaccinate individuals, including health workers, who have been in contact, directly and indirectly, with patients confirmed to be infected with Ebola. So far, more than 500 people have been identified.

“Changing our behaviors, even our deepest values and traditions” will be required to stamp out the epidemic, Ilunga said, urging the population in affected areas not to touch sick people or wash the bodies of the deceased.

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