KINSHASA (Reuters) – The agencies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United Nations have begun deploying emergency teams over the weekend to prevent the spread of an Ebola epidemic that infects more than 30 people.
The World Health Organization received 4,000 doses of an Ebola vaccine and was preparing for deployment in the Congo, Africa director Matshidiso Moeti told Reuters on Sunday.
So far, only two cases have been confirmed in a laboratory.
The latest suspicion was reported Friday in Equateur, a northwestern province, attended by Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga on Saturday with officials from the WHO and U.N. Children's Aid (UNICEF).
President Joseph Kabila met with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Kinshasa on Sunday.
Moeti said that 362 contacts had been traced back by the sick – a necessary precursor to the use of the vaccines. She added that two of these contacts had come to the provincial capital Mbandaka. The biggest concern since the epidemic was that it could spread there.
"We are worried because this is a city of 1 million people," she said.
Congo first reported the outbreak that extended to the village of Ikoko Impenge near the town of Bikoro, with 32 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the disease, including 18 deaths since 4 April. Some deaths occurred as early as January were not yet associated with the epidemic.
"It is obvious that two or three months ago some cases of haemorrhagic fever and some deaths occurred," said Moeti. "Work is underway to determine the beginning of this epidemic."
Officials are trying to prevent the virus from getting out of control, as in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, when Ebola killed more than 11,300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The WHO has been criticized for botching its response to this epidemic and has therefore moved quickly.
Congo suffered eight previous Ebola epidemics. Due to the geographical location and the poor transport links, they tended to fizzle out rather than spread to a national crisis.
But the proximity of this epidemic to the Congo, an important transportation route and lifeline to both the capital of the Congo, Kinshasa, and the neighboring capital of the Republic of the Congo, Brazzaville, causes the virus to break into a larger area.
The most dreaded disease she may cause due to damage to blood vessels for her internal and external bleeding from her victims has already spread to three sites covering 60 km or more in Equateur Province.
The Congo's nine neighbors were put on alert if Ebola crosses a border, especially in the Republic of Congo or in the Central African Republic.
"WHO is stepping up its presence and positioning a dozen epidemiologists who will focus on the axes of Mbandaka, Bikoro and Iboko to seek warnings," said Congo representative Allarangar Yokouide.
The WHO said Friday it hopes to use an experimental Ebola vaccine to fight an outbreak.
Reporting by Amedee Mwarabu; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Catherine Evans