DR CONGO EBOLA OUTBREAK SPREADS TO MBANDAKA CITY
THE Ebola outbreak in DR Congo has spread from the countryside into a city, prompting fears that the disease will be increasingly hard to control.
Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga confirmed a case in Mbandaka, a city of a million people about 130km (80 miles) from the area where the first cases were confirmed earlier this month.
The city is a major transportation hub with routes to the capital Kinshasa.
Forty-four people have been infected and 23 people known to have died.
Ebola is a serious infectious illness that causes internal bleeding and often proves fatal. It can spread rapidly through contact with small amounts of bodily fluid and its early flulike symptoms are not always are obvious.
Why is the spread to a city such a worry?
The 2014-16 West Africa outbreak, which killed 11,300 people, was particularly deadly because it spread to the capital cities of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Senior World Health Organization (WHO) official Peter Salama said the spread to Mbandaka meant there was the potential for an “explosive increase” in cases.
“This is a major development in the outbreak,” he told the BBC. “We have urban Ebola, which is a very different animal from rural Ebola. The potential for an explosive increase in cases is now there.” Mr Salama, the WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, said Mbandaka’s location on the Congo river, widely used for transportation, raised the prospect of Ebola spreading to surrounding countries such as Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic as well as downstream to Kinshasa, a city of 10 million people.
“This puts a whole different lens on this outbreak and gives us increased urgency to move very quickly into Mbandaka to stop this new first sign of transmission,” he said.
What is being done to contain the outbreak?
So far only three of the 44 cases have been confirmed as Ebola and involve people who are still alive, the WHO says. There are a further 20 probable cases and 21 suspected cases, which together account for all the deaths.
The cases were recorded in three health zones of Congo’s Equateur province.
Isolation and rudimentary Ebola case management facilities had been set up in Mbandaka to cope with cases, Mr Salama said.
The disease may have been brought there, he said, by two or three people who had attended the funeral of an Ebola victim in Bikoro to the south of Mbandaka before travelling to the city.
On Wednesday more than 4,000 doses of an experimental vaccine sent by the WHO arrived in Kinshasa with another batch expected soon.
These would be given as a priority to people in Mbandaka who had been in contact with those suspected of carrying the Ebola virus before people in any other affected area, in order to stop Ebola spreading in the urban region and beyond, Mr Salama said. The vaccine from pharmaceutical firm Merck is unlicensed but was effective in limited trials during the West Africa Ebola Outbreak. It needs to be stored at a temperature of between -60 and -80 C. Electricity supplies in Congo are unreliable.
Health workers had identified 430 people who may have had contact with the disease and were working to trace more than 4,000 contacts of Ebola patients, who had spread across northwest DR Congo, the WHO said.
Many of these people were in areas only reachable by motorbike, Mr Salama said.
Ebola has claimed twentythree lives so far