The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is preparing for “the worst case scenario” as it deals with a recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo from spreading any further.
The health agency will begin sending vaccines “as quickly as possible” to the northwestern town of Bikoro and surrounding areas, where 18 people are suspected to have died as a result of the virus in recent weeks, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a Twitter post on Friday.
Yesterday I spoke by phone with the Minister of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo @OlyIlunga to discuss the #Ebola response in #DRC. We agreed to ship vaccines as quickly as possible so they can be used to save lives.
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) May 11, 2018
A team of WHO experts, alongside regional health officials and staff from international medical charity Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF), are working in Bikoro as part of a coordinated medical response to the crisis.
Laboratory tests undertaken earlier this week in the capital, Kinshasa, resulted in the only two confirmed cases of the virus – which has no proven cure – in Congo since the outbreak began.
According to WHO estimates, at least 12 others are suspected to have contracted the virus in the past five weeks, meaning 32 “suspected, probable and confirmed” cases of Ebola have now been registered in Congo since early April.
Three health workers are among those reported to have been affected.
In a statement on Tuesday, Congo’s health ministry said the country is facing “another epidemic of the Ebola virus, which constitutes an international public health emergency”.
The latest cases come less than a year after Congo’s last confirmed Ebola outbreak in May 2017, during which eight people were infected, four of whom died.
This is the ninth time Ebola has been recorded in Congo.
Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response, said the organisation was “very concerned” about the current situation in Congo.
“The problem here is that we already have three separate locations that are reporting cases that cover as much as 60km and maybe more,” Salama said on Friday at the UN in the Swiss city of Geneva.
“We are … planning for all scenarios, including the worst-case scenario.”
Ebola, which can cause multiple organ failures, killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa from 2013-16 as it swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The average fatality rate among those infected with the virus is about 50 percent, according to the WHO.
Early symptoms include fever, muscle pain and fatigue followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes and bleeding – both internal and external – apparent in the gums, eyes, nasal passages and faeces.
Ebola, discovered in 1976 and named after Congo’s northern Ebola River, is contracted by humans through contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals, typically fruit bats, chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys.
The virus is passed human-to-human by contact through the mouth, nose, or broken skin with blood or other bodily fluids of those infected.