Ebola reaches major city in Congo
Attacks, misinformation hurt bid to halt outbreak
DAKAR, Senegal — The second-largest Ebola outbreak in history has spread to a major city in eastern Congo, as health experts worry whether the stock of an experimental vaccine will stand up to the demands of an epidemic with no end in sight.
Butembo, with more than 1 million residents, is now reporting cases of the deadly hemorrhagic fever. That complicates Ebola containment work already challenged by rebel attacks elsewhere that have made tracking the virus almost impossible in some isolated villages.
“We are very concerned by the epidemiological situation in the Butembo area,” said John Johnson, project coordinator with Doctors Without Borders in the city.
The outbreak declared on Aug. 1 is now second only to the devastating West Africa outbreak that killed more than 11,300 people a few years ago.
There are currently 471 Ebola cases, of which 423 are confirmed, including 225 confirmed deaths, Congo’s health ministry said late Thursday.
Without the teams that have vaccinated more than 41,000 people so far, this outbreak could have already seen more than 10,000 Ebola cases, the ministry said.
This is by far the largest deployment of the promising but still experimental Ebola vaccine, which is owned by Merck. The company keeps a stockpile of 300,000 doses, and preparing them takes months.
“We are extremely concerned about the size of the vaccine stockpile,” Dr. Peter Salama, emergencies director of the World Health Organization, told the STAT media outlet in an interview this week.
This Ebola outbreak is like no other, with deadly attacks by rebel groups forcing containment work to pause for days at a time. Some wary locals have resisted vaccinations or safe burials of Ebola victims as health workers battle misinformation in a region that has never encountered the virus before.
A “fringe population” has regularly destroyed medical equipment and attacked workers, Health Minister Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga told reporters Wednesday.
Thousands of people have been organized by Red Cross societies and others to go house-to-house dispelling rumors and checking on possible contacts of victims.
In this photo taken Nov. 4 and made available Tuesday, a caretaker already cured of Ebola carries a 4-day-old baby suspected of having the disease into a treatment center in Butembo, Congo.