World / Science & Health

Given its proximity to borders, Congo Ebola outbreak poses high regional risk: WHO

Reuters

An Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is likely spread and poses a high regional risk, given its proximity to borders, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday.

Four people have tested positive for Ebola in and around Mangina, a town of about 60,000 people in North Kivu province, 100 km (62 miles) from the Ugandan border, the health ministry said. Another 20 people died from unidentified hemorrhagic fevers in the area, mostly in the second half of July.

News of the outbreak emerged just days after a previous outbreak on the other side of the Central African country that killed 33 people was declared over.

“It would appear that the risk, as we can surmise for DRC, is high. For the region it’s high given the proximity to borders, particularly Uganda,” said WHO’s emergency response chief Peter Salama.

“We’re talking about a few health areas mostly in one health zone. So we are talking about tens of kilometers but I stress that this is very preliminary information at this stage.”

Ebola is believed to be transported long distances by bats and can find its way into bush meat sold at local markets and eaten. Once present in humans, it causes hemorrhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhea and is spread through direct contact with body fluids. Over 11,300 people died of an epidemic in West Africa from 2013 to 2016.

This is the vast, forested Central African country’s 10th outbreak since 1976, when the virus was discovered near Congo’s Ebola river in the north. That is more than twice as many epidemics as any other country.

The response to Congo’s previous outbreak was considered a success despite the 33 deaths, as the use of a vaccine made by Merck helped contain the virus even when it reached a busy port city with transport links to the capital Kinshasa.

But this new outbreak poses new challenges. Eastern Congo is a tinderbox of conflicts over land and ethnicity stoked by decades of on-off war and this could hamper efforts to contain the virus.

About 1,000 civilians have been killed by armed groups and government soldiers around Beni since 2014, and the wider region of North Kivu holds over 1 million displaced people.

It may also be impossible to use a vaccine this time if the Ebola strain is different to the Zaire strain that the Merck vaccine protects against, Salama said. If it turns out to be the Sudan or Bundibugyo strain, “we may not have any vaccine options,” he told Reuters at WHO’s Geneva headquarters.

Officials in Mangina rushed on Thursday to educate people about the risks of spreading the virus in a town that one local nurse told Reuters had no ambulance service.

Agents were deployed to warn people about the need for strict hygiene and the local radio station passed on messages to listeners about how to act, a local journalist said by phone.

“There is a great panic among the local population following the appearance of the Ebola epidemic,” said one local nurse by phone, who asked not to be named.

The hospital where she works has already seen three people die recently of hemorrhagic fever. They are awaiting help from the Red Cross to bury the bodies properly, she said.

Meanwhile neighboring Uganda has set up screening at the land border and at its Entebbe international airport.

“Ebola is highly infectious so we have put in place measures,” Ugandan Junior Health Minister Sarah Achieng Opendi told Reuters by telephone.

An international delegation including officials from the United Nations, the World Bank and the WHO has arrived in Beni, 30 km from Mangina.

“The response is already in place,” David Gressly, U.N. deputy special representative for Congo, told journalists in Beni. “We (the U.N. mission) will offer logistical support and if needed security support. We are all … here to see how we can organize this as fast as possible.”