Residents of northeastern Congo braced Friday amid a new outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus as the World Health Organization said it hopes to know as early as Tuesday whether the strain is the one for which an experimental vaccine can be used.
Health officials have blocked off the village of Mangina, where four cases have been confirmed. The village is just 30 kilometres from the city of Beni and its more than 680,000 people.
Authorities have warned that the new outbreak, declared a week after another Ebola outbreak in Congo’s northwest was declared over, poses a “highly complex” challenge with multiple armed groups active in the mineral-rich region and with Beni and a well-travelled border with Uganda and Rwanda nearby.
The swift vaccinations of more than 3,300 people helped in containing the previous outbreak, which saw 33 deaths.
The WHO emergencies director said 3,000 vaccine doses were still in Congo’s capital after being positioned there for the earlier outbreak. Dr. Peter Salama told reporters in Geneva that WHO can mobilize up to 300,000 more doses “at very short notice.”
Officials said it was not yet clear whether the two Congo outbreaks separated by more than 2,500 kilometres are linked. Congo’s health ministry on Wednesday announced the four new Ebola cases in Mangina, adding that at least 20 people have died from a hemorrhagic fever.
Salama said “we expect … that the overall case count will rise in coming days to weeks based on the trajectory of epidemics at this stage in their development.”
Congo has dealt with Ebola for decades and this is its tenth outbreak of the virus. Ebola, first identified in the country in 1976, jumps to humans from animals including bats and monkeys. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids of those infected, including the dead.
There is no specific treatment for Ebola, and the virus can be fatal in up to 90 per cent of cases, depending on the strain.
Salama said the “signal event” in this new outbreak was the death of a 65-year-old woman who had been admitted to the hospital in Mangina.
“She died, we believe, on July 25 and she was buried, we believe, in an unsafe burial in terms of Ebola standards and seven deaths have occurred in her immediate family,” Salama said. “So this is what really raised the alarm toward the end of July about the new event — she had fever, vomiting, bloody nose and bloody diarrhea as her final set of symptoms.”
Residents of the region expressed concern.
Paluku Vianney, a 40-year-old father of six, worried about his farmland in the affected village, calling it his only source of income.
“I was hit with fear not only about whether my health would be attacked by Ebola, but also how I’m going to feed my family without our Mangina field because all the roads leading to Mangina have been quarantined by the health officials,” he said.
Vianney said this was the first time Ebola had been declared in the area and “our people don’t know how to protect themselves.”
Another resident, 20-year-old Clovis Hangi, called on Congo’s government to launch campaigns to teach residents how to protect themselves from Ebola, and to cancel all meetings of more than 20 people to avoid contamination.
“Yes, I am afraid of this disease because it will have an impact on the economy of Congo,” he said, adding that if the border is closed the community will suffer.