Drastic shift as ebola found in Congo city
CONGO’S ebola outbreak has spread to a crossroads city of more than 1 million people in a troubling turn that marks the first time the vast, impoverished country has encountered the lethal virus in an urban area.
“This is a major, major game-changer in the outbreak,” Dr Peter Salama, the World Health Organisation’s deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response, warned yesterday.
A single case of ebola was confirmed in Mbandaka, a densely populated provincial capital on the Congo River, Congo’s Health Minister Oly Ilunga said late Wednesday.
The city is about 150km from Bikoro, the rural area where the outbreak was announced last week.
Congo’s Ministry of Health has announced 11 new confirmed ebola cases and two deaths tied to cases in the country’s northwest, including one in a suburb of Mbandaka.
A total of 45 cases of ebola have now been reported in Congo in this outbreak: 14 confirmed, 21 probable and 10 suspected, the ministry said.
There has been one new death in Bikoro, where the first death took place. That new death had epidemiological ties to another case.
The other death was a suspected case in Wangata, a suburb of Mbandaka on the Congo River, the ministry said.
Medical teams have been rushing to track down anyone thought to have had contact with infected people, while the WHO is shipping thousands of doses of an experimental vaccine.
Until now, the outbreak was confined to remote rural areas, where ebola, which is spread by bodily fluids, travels more slowly.
Dr Salama said urban ebola could result in an exponential increase in cases in a way that rural ebola struggles to do.
Mbandaka, a city of almost 1.2 million, is in a busy travel corridor in Congo’s northwest Equateur province and is upstream from the capital, Kinshasa, a city of about 10 million.
It is an hour’s plane ride from Kinshasa or a four- to seven-day trip by river barge.
Dr Salama also noted Mbandaka’s proximity to neighbouring countries, including Central African Republic and Republic of Congo.
“The scenario has changed, and it has become most serious and worrying, since the disease is now affecting an urban area,” Henry Gray, emergency co-ordinator in Mbandaka for Doctors Without Borders, said.
The aid organisation said 514 people believed to have been in contact with infected people are being monitored.
This is the ninth ebola outbreak in Congo since 1976, when the disease was first identified.
The virus can be fatal in up to 90 per cent of cases.
Health workers don protective clothing to attend to suspected ebola patients in Bikoro, Congo, where an outbreak was announced last week and (inset, above) suspected ebola sufferers wait outside a clinic in the rural region.