LONDON, (Reuters) – A vaccination campaign aimed at fighting an Ebola outbreak in the Congo began on Monday in the port city of Mbandaka, where four cases of the deadly disease have been confirmed.
Use of the VSV- EBOV shot – an experimental vaccine developed by Merck – marks a "paradigm shift" in how to fight Ebola, said the emergency response director of the World Health Organization, and means that regions with outbreaks of Ebola can expect more than to contain an outbreak with basic measures of public health such as isolation and hygiene.
The vaccine is designed for use in so-called ring vaccination plans. When a new case of Ebola is diagnosed, all people who may have been in recent contact with the patient are tracked and vaccinated to prevent the spread of the disease.
"It is the first time in the middle of an outbreak (…) that we are using this as a way to stop transmission," WHO's Peter Salama said in a telephone interview. "It's an important moment that changes the way we've seen Ebola for 40 years."
The same strategy was used to test the Merck vaccine in Guinea at the end of 2015, towards the end of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013 to 2016. The results of the trials showed that it was safe and provided very high levels. high protection against Ebola.
About 30 Guinean health workers who participated directly in the 2015 vaccine trial traveled to Congo and will help with immunizations there, Salama said.
Ebola causes hemorrhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhea and spreads through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. More than 11,300 people died in the West African epidemic.
This latest outbreak has killed 25 people since the beginning of April, according to WHO. It is the ninth in the Congo since the disease appeared for the first time near the Ebola River in the seventies.
Cases in Mbandaka, a port city on the Congo River, have raised concerns that the virus will spread downstream to the capital, Kinshasa, which has a population of 10 million.
Salama, who visited the Congo after the Ebola outbreak was reported for the first time on May 8, said up to 1,000 people, first in Mbandaka and then in Bikoro and other affected areas, could be vaccinated in the next week.
About 7,300 doses are already in the Congo, and hundreds of thousands more are available in a reserve accumulated by Merck.
"If we need more, we can send it in a matter of days," he said. "We're fine for the vaccine supply, that's not a problem. The problem will be to make sure we find all the contacts, track them and vaccinate them if they agree."
Data from the Congolese Ministry of Health show four confirmed cases of Ebola in the Wangata neighborhood of Mbandaka and two suspected cases. A patient has died. For each case, vaccines will be offered to up to 150 contacts.
Salama said he was particularly concerned about the "unknowns" of the outbreak, namely the potential number of cases in the village of Ikobo, where there are no roads and even the helicopters have problems landing.
"Actually, I'm very worried about Ikobo because we have four new suspected cases there and it's very, very remote, we've tried to land helicopters there several times, but we need the community to clear the runway, and still not they have completely cleared, "said Salama.
"And when you do not have people on the ground, it is very difficult to badess the extent of the outbreak, I am concerned that there are many more cases than we have been able to identify so far."
Information from Kate Kelland; Larry King edition