Geneva – The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has spread to a city, says the World Health Organization (WHO), fueling concerns that the deadly virus is harder to contain.
The fresh outbreak, publicly declared on May 8 with 23 deaths so far, had previously been confined in a remote rural area in the Equateur province in the northwest of the country.
But the UN health agency confirmed on Thursday that an Ebola case was registered in the city of Mbandaka, which is about 150 km from the Bikoro area where the outbreak originated.
"This is a worrying development," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
Last week, the WHO official warned that if the virus reached Mbandaka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo could face another Ebola crisis. The population of the city has been estimated between 700,000 and 1.2 million.
"If we see a city of that size infected with Ebola, then we are going to have a big urban outbreak," WHO emergency response chief Peter Salama told reporters last week.
The WHO said on Thursday that it was deploying about 30 experts for Mbandaka "to carry out surveillance in the city," including rapid efforts to track all contacts in the new urban case. So far, 44 cases have been reported in the outbreak, including three confirmed, 20 probable and 21 suspects, according to the WHO count.
Ebola is not only lethal but also highly contagious, which makes containment and back difficult. Lacking an arsenal of drugs to treat or prevent the virus, doctors use classic tactics to isolate patients and track people who have been in contact with them.
This challenge is greatly amplified in urban environments where people move more and have more contact than others in the countryside.
In addition to the headache is the fact that the virus broke out again in one of the most vulnerable and volatile countries in the world. The basic infrastructure -hospitals, roads, electricity- is a major obstacle in remote areas.
This is the ninth time that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been affected by the Ebola virus since 1976, when the deady viral disease was identified for the first time in Zaire by a Belgian. directed team.
The virus is widely considered to be one of the most terrifying in the world, since it can easily spread and kill quickly. The WHO also confirmed that the current outbreak is the same strain of the virus that erupted in West Africa in 2013 and killed more than 11,300 people, the deadliest Ebola epidemic to date.
WHO was harshly criticized for its handling of the 2013 outbreak. Tedros, who took over WHO in 2017, has promised that improving the response to the crisis would be a key priority for the agency.
"We now have better tools than ever to fight Ebola," he said on Tuesday after visiting the DRC over the weekend to evaluate the response.
A terrible infrastructure in Bikoro, especially a poor road network, has created logistical complications for health workers trying to reach the area. But the WHO response this time has been aided by a new experimental vaccine, which arrived in the DRC on Wednesday and has been approved for use by the Kinshasa government.
Tedros assured over the weekend that the WHO had enough doses of the vaccine to respond, but it was not immediately clear whether the reserves were sufficient to handle a significant urban outbreak.