File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )
The Democratic Republic of Congo and UN agencies began deploying emergency teams of specialists over the weekend to try to prevent the spread of an Ebola epidemic suspected to have infected more than 30 people, they said on Sunday.
The latest suspected case was reported on Friday in the northwestern province of Equateur, which health minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga visited on Saturday with officials from the WHO and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“We have to pool our efforts quickly and align ourselves with the government response plan to fight this new epidemic effectively,” Kalenga was quoted as saying in a joint statement following their visit to the state capital.
Congo first reported the outbreak, centred around the village of Ikoko Impenge, near the town of Bikoro, on Tuesday, with 32 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the disease, including 18 deaths since April 4. Some deaths occurring as early as January have not yet been linked to the epidemic.
A person in the Democratic Republic of Congo who died of a hemorrhagic fever has tested positive for the Ebola virus, signaling the start of a new outbreak, the Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
The case was confirmed from tests on nine people who came down with a hemorrhagic fever in Bas-Uele province in the north of the country on or after April 22, a ministry statement said. Three people have died of fever.
Officials are racing to prevent the virus from spreading out of control, as happened in West Africa from 2014-2016, when Ebola killed more than 11,300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The WHO was criticised for bungling its response to that epidemic and has moved quickly.
Congo had suffered eight Ebola epidemics previously, but owing to remote geography and poor transport links they have tended to fizzle out rather than spread to become a national crisis.
But this epidemic’s proximity to the Congo River, a major transport route and lifeline both to Congo‘s capital Kinshasa and to neighbouring Congo Republic’s capital Brazzaville, makes it more likely that the virus could break out into a wider area.
The disease – most feared for the internal and external bleeding it can cause in its victims owing to damage done to blood vessels – has already spread to three separate locations covering 60 km or more in Equateur province.
The WHO said on Friday it hopes to deploy an experimental Ebola vaccine to tackle an outbreak.
The WHO's Congo spokesman Eugene Kabambi told Reuters: "It is in a very remote zone, very forested, so we are a little lucky. We always take this very seriously."
The last outbreak of Ebola in Congo was in 2014 and killed 42 people.
Ebola killed more than 11,300 people and infected some 28,600 from 2013, as it swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and caused alarm around the world.