GENEVA / KINSHASA (Reuters) – The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can be controlled and is not an international public health emergency, experts told the World Health Organization on Friday.
Previously, WHO had said the first confirmation of Ebola in Mbandaka, a city of around 1.5 million people, has prompted him to declare a "very high" public health risk for the country and a "high" risk to the region.
Three new cases of Ebola were confirmed later in Mbandaka on Friday, in a part of the city along the Congo River.
The ministry said in a statement late on Friday that new cases had been reported Thursday in the Wangata neighborhood by the river, and that the samples tested positive for Ebola. Another suspicious case came to light on Friday.
The outbreak, the ninth in Congo since the disease first appeared near the north of the Ebola River in the 1970s, has raised concern that the virus will spread downstream to the capital, Kinshasa, which has a population of 10 million.
The Emergency Committee of 11 WHO experts said that the rapid response had mitigated the risk of the outbreak, which was declared 10 days ago and has killed 25 people since the beginning of April.
"Ongoing interventions provide a solid reason to believe that the outbreak can be controlled," the committee said in a statement.
They decided not to declare a "public health emergency of international interest" (PHEIC), a formal warning that warns governments and helps mobilize resources and research.
However, committee chair Robert Steffen said the "vigorous" response to the outbreak should continue.
"Without that, the situation is likely to deteriorate significantly," he told a news conference in Geneva.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust medical charity and expert on infectious diseases, said the decision not to declare an emergency was "correct at the moment," but should be kept under review.
"We can not predict how the outbreak will progress, and WHO should keep the situation under frequent review and not hesitate to declare a PHEIC if the situation shows signs of deterioration," he said in a statement.
WHO was harshly criticized for being too slow to declare an international emergency during an outbreak in West Africa in 2013-2016. That epidemic spread mainly through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It killed more than 11,300 people and infected 28,600.
One of the problems was locating people who had been in contact with patients with Ebola to prevent them from spreading the deadly virus.
This time, a vaccine is being implemented to try to stop the outbreak.
WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the vaccine would encourage people to come forward, which makes him trust that very few of the 532 contacts identified so far could disappear.
WHO emergency preparedness and response chief Peter Salama said the contact tracking rate was "extremely high" in the city of Mbandaka and "very high" in Bikoro, the small city where most of the 45 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola have occurred since April 4.
More challenging were the small peripheral villages, accessible only by motorcycle, where the first cases were not registered initially last month.
Tedros said emergency response teams planned to begin vaccinating front-line health workers in the Congo on Sunday, but Salama said the date had not been fixed.
"As early as Monday we will start," he said.
The plan involves the vaccination of "rings" of contacts around each patient with Ebola, and then a second ring around each contact.
The WHO is sending 7,540 doses of the vaccine developed by Merck ( MRK.N ), enough to vaccinate 50 rings of 150 people. Salama said that 8,000 to 10,000 people would be vaccinated in the first phase.
He said WHO was also talking about a second vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ.N ) and that he wanted to get approval from Congo to use ZMapp, an intravenous treatment for Ebola.
Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, Amedee Mwarabu in Kinshasa; Written by Kate Kelland; Edited by Tim Cocks, Toni Reinhold