WHO: Urban Ebola in Congo ‘a game-changer’
NAIROBI, Kenya — Congo has confirmed a case of Ebola in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million, marking the first urban case in the latest outbreak of the disease. The World Health Organization’s lead response official called Thursday’s new confirmed case “a game-changer.”
Ebola is much harder to contain in urban areas, so this development compounds the risk of contagion and elevates the outbreak to the most serious since an Ebola epidemic that raged across West Africa from 2014 to 2016.
Previously, confirmed cases had been limited to an extremely remote area more than 100 miles south of Mbandaka, in the rain forest of Congo’s Euateur province.
The case in Mbandaka is only the third confirmed case of the current outbreak; 20 others are probable, and 21 are suspected, bringing the total of potential cases to 44. The death toll is now 23.
“This is a major development in the outbreak,” said Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director general of emergency preparedness and response. “We have urban Ebola, which is a very different animal from rural Ebola. The potential for an explosive increase in cases is now there.”
The port city of Mbandaka lies on the eastern bank of the Congo River, Africa’s second longest after the Nile. Tens of millions of people live along the river, and the capitals of Congo, the Central African Republic and Congo Republic lie along it and its tributaries.
Ebola is notoriously hard to contain, though recent outbreaks in Congo have been managed swiftly by the World Health Organization and Congolese health officials, gaining the government there a reputation as one of the continent’s most prepared. Ebola is endemic in Congo, and this is the ninth outbreak of the disease there since the 1970s.
Last May, a small outbreak resulted in five confirmed cases and four deaths in a province neighboring Equateur.
The outbreak in West Africa that started in 2014 reached epidemic proportions and was the worst ever recorded, infecting more than 28,000 and killing more than 11,000. A concurrent but much smaller and unrelated Ebola outbreak took place in Congo in 2014 as well. The WHO was accused of responding slowly in 2014, and the organization has taken pains to ensure it is both acting more quickly and being seen as doing so this time around. The organization’s head, Tedros Ghebreyesus, visited the affected area himself earlier this week.
The disease causes internal bleeding and spreads rapidly through contact with small amounts of bodily fluid. Its early symptoms are not obvious, and the worst effects may take weeks to show. It is often transmitted to humans through the consumption of contaminated meat, but it can also be acquired through any kind of close contact with an infected animal.
Health workers prepare to diagnose and treat suspected Ebola patients in Bikoro Hospital in Congo.