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An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has spread to a large city and the World Health Organization has called an emergency meeting to talk about what to do.
It’s only one case so far, but a case of Ebola in a city is a serious matter. Ebola regularly breaks out in remote, rural parts of Africa but usually causes only a few dozen or a few hundred cases. In 2014, when it hit a more connected region of West Africa with several urban centers, it spread to more than 28,000 people and killed 11,000 of them.
“The arrival of Ebola in an urban area is very concerning,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.
WHO says 44 cases of Ebola have been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — most in a remote, northwestern province that is very hard to reach. More than 20 people have died.
The new case is in Mbandaka, a city of nearly 1.2 million people on a major river.
“This is a concerning development, but we now have better tools than ever before to combat Ebola,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “WHO and our partners are taking decisive action to stop further spread of the virus.”
WHO has admitted to moving far too slowly and timidly to help fight the 2014 epidemic of Ebola in West Africa.
The first batch of 4,000 vaccines has arrived in the DRC’s capital. The vaccine is still experimental, but appears to have protected people from Ebola when it was tested in Guinea in 2016. Drugmaker Merck has licensed the vaccine, which was developed in Canada, and has been seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.
Researchers who tested the vaccine used the same strategy that was used to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. Called ring vaccination, it calls for vaccinating people who have been in contact with patients, and contacts of contacts.
But the vaccine must be kept in especially cold conditions — far below the level of normal freezers — which makes transporting it in such a remote region a challenge.
This is the ninth Ebola outbreak in the DRC since the virus was first discovered there in 1976, when the country was named Zaire.
The last outbreak was last year.
Ebola causes a hemorrhagic fever — one that can cause internal and external bleeding. It also causes a high fever, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus spreads through close contact with blood and bodily fluids.
Common burial practices, which include washing the bodies of the dead, can help the virus spread.