Congo, WHO race to prevent runaway Ebola outbreak
KINSHASA (Reuters) – Congolese and UN officials were racing to prevent a runaway Ebola outbreak in Congo on Thursday, working out the logistics of keeping newly arrived vaccines well below freezing in a steamy region on the equator with unreliable power.
World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the UN body would convene an Emergency Committee meeting on Friday to consider the international risks.
This is Democratic Republic of Congo’s ninth epidemic since the disease was identified in the 1970s, but also its most alarming because of the risk of transmission via regular river transport to the capital, Kinshasa, a city of 10 million.
An experimental but highly effective vaccine is being deployed against the virus, with health workers being vaccinated first, but it needs to be kept at -80º C in a humid region where daytime temperatures hover around 30.
“For now, the cold chain is guaranteed at -80º until Kinshasa,” Health Minister Oly Ilunga told Reuters. “There is a fridge that will be prepared [on Thursday] ... in Mbandaka and that will be at -80.
“This vaccine is no longer experimental. The effectiveness has been proven and validated,” he added. “Now that we are facing the Ebola virus we must use all the resources we have.”
The WHO expert committee will decide whether to declare a “public health emergency of international concern,” which would trigger more international involvement, mobilizing research and resources, Lindmeier said.
Emergency Committees have been set up to advise on past outbreaks such as the 2016 Zika epidemic in Latin America and the huge West African Ebola outbreak that killed at least 11,300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from 2014 to 2016. Mindful of criticism it received for being too slow during that epidemic, when it took months to convene an Emergency Committee, the WHO is moving fast on Congo’s latest outbreak.
The committee can advise WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on actions to be taken by Congo and other countries to try to halt the international spread of disease without unduly interfering with trade or transport.
CONGOLESE HEALTH MINISTRY officials arrange the first batch of experimental Ebola vaccines in Kinshasa on Wednesday.