There is an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organization announced Friday.
The epidemic, which is currently small, is in remote Bas-Uele province, near the northern border with the Central African Republic. To date there have been nine suspected cases. Three have died and the six other people have been hospitalized. The first case dates back to April 22.
“An investigation team led by the Ministry of Health and supported by WHO and partners has deployed and is expected to reach the affected area in the coming days,” Dr. Peter Salama, WHO executive director for emergencies, said in a statement.
The WHO and partners are supporting Congo’s Ministry of Health in the response, including epidemiological investigation, surveillance, logistics and supplies, communications and community engagement, the statement said.
Testing of five samples was conducted at the country’s National Biomedical Research Institute in Kinshasa, with one coming back positive for Ebola, specifically the Zaire species of the virus. That is the same strain that was responsible for the massive West African outbreak in 2014-2015. Additional testing is ongoing.
While Ebola outbreaks are always dangerous, there is some reassuring news here. The Democratic Republic of Congo has decades of experience containing Ebola outbreaks. The first known outbreak of the deadly disease occurred there in 1976, in Yambuku. A total of 318 cases were recorded in that outbreak, including 280 deaths.
The country has fought seven outbreaks before the current one; the most recent was between August and November of 2014, and involved 66 cases.
And this time, for the first time in the history of Ebola outbreaks, there is an experimental Ebola vaccine that can be used to help contain the outbreak, if it’s needed. Supplies of the vaccine, first tested during the widespread West African outbreak, have been stockpiled by Gavi, a public-private partnership that makes vaccines available to lower-income countries.
“The fact that this is a country that has experience dealing with Ebola should give us hope that we won’t see a pandemic on the scale of the 2014 outbreak that hit West Africa,” Dr. Seth Berkley, Gavi CEO, said in a statement.
The vaccine, designed by scientists at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, is being developed by the pharmaceutical giant Merck. Work is still underway to get the vaccine licensed. But in the meantime, Gavi has an agreement with Merck that requires the company to stockpile large supplies of the vaccine in case it is needed to contain an outbreak.
“Gavi’s work with Merck means there are 300,000 doses of Ebola vaccine available if needed to stop this outbreak becoming a pandemic,” Berkley said. “The vaccine has shown high efficacy in clinical trials and could play a vital role in protecting the most vulnerable.”
However, the WHO said it’s not yet clear if vaccine will be needed to control the outbreak, or whether Congo wants to use it.
Tarik Jašarević, a spokesman for the Geneva-based global health agency, said the WHO and its partners are conducting an epidemiological investigation to assess the scope of the outbreak and how many people are potentially at risk. If a decision to vaccinate is made, a ring vaccination strategy will be used, Jašarević said.
That approach, used in the trial that proved the effectiveness of the vaccine, involves vaccinating the people who had contact with a confirmed case. Creating rings of protected people around each case limits the chances the virus can continue to transmit.
In the early days of the world’s experience with Ebola, outbreaks in DRC numbered in the hundreds of cases — which was large at the time. But the three outbreaks in DRC in the past decade involved fewer than 100 cases each.
The largest known outbreak of Ebola was the 2014-2015 West African epidemic. More than 28,600 people were infected and more than 11,300 died.