Health authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed a case of Ebola in Mbandaka, a city in the northwest of the country that’s home to about 1 million people.
The person carrying the viral disease was one of two suspected cases in Mbandaka that were tested, Health Minister Oly Ilunga said in a statement emailed Wednesday from the capital, Kinshasa. Prior to the confirmation of the latest case, only two other people had tested positive for the disease near the remote town of Bikoro, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Mbandaka by road.
“We are entering a new phase of the Ebola epidemic,” which now “includes one urban health zone,” Ilunga said.
Congo confirmed the latest outbreak of Ebola on May 8, the ninth occurrence of the disease in the central African nation since it was first discovered there in 1976. The Health Ministry reported 42 suspected cases of Ebola on May 15. Of the 20 people considered probable carriers, 18 have died.
Mbandaka is situated on the Congo River, which links the area to the capital, Kinshasa, a city of about 12 million, and Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo. The other towns of Equateur province, both upstream and downstream, have been “placed under surveillance,” according to Ilunga.
“A major urban outbreak” in Mbandaka is “an immediate risk,” Peter Salama, the World Health Organization’s deputy director-general for emergency response, said on May 11. “Once Ebola gets into urban areas, especially poor urban slums, it’s very difficult to get rid of the disease.”
The Health Ministry on Wednesday received an air consignment of thousands of doses of an unlicensed VSV-EBOV vaccine dispatched by the WHO from Geneva. The treatment was trialled successfully in Guinea during a major outbreak in West African that killed more than 11,000 people between 2014 and 2016. Congo’s government authorized the use of the vaccine last week.
The doses are being stored in Kinshasa until authorities are sure the vaccine can be transported to Mbandaka and Bikoro -- and kept there -- at a sufficiently low temperature. Electricity supply in the region is unreliable.
The ministry and its partners plan to launch a targeted program to vaccinate individuals, including health workers, who have been in contact, directly and indirectly, with patients confirmed to be infected with Ebola. So far, more than 500 people have been identified.
“Changing our behaviors, even our deepest values and traditions” will be required to stamp out the epidemic, Ilunga said, urging the population in affected areas not to touch sick people or wash the bodies of the deceased.