WHO hopes to use Ebola vaccine to stem Congo outbreak
GENEVA: The World Health Organization is preparing for the worst case scenario in an Ebola outbreak in a remote area of Congo, including spread to a major town, WHO Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response Peter Salama said on Friday.
He told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva that he hoped the Democratic Republic of Congo would give the green light within days for the deployment of an experimental vaccine, but warned that the drug was complicated to use and was not a magic bullet.
“All of the preparations are being put in place. As soon as we have the green light, we’ll go for it,” he said.
“We are very concerned and planning for all scenarios, including the worst case scenario,” Salama said.
The immediate risk was the outbreak spreading to the provincial capital Mbandaka, with about 1 million inhabitants.
“If we see a town of that size infected with Ebola, then we are going to have a major urban outbreak, which is going to be a real challenge,” he said.
“Once Ebola gets into urban areas, especially poor urban slums, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of the disease.”
The WHO has also put Congo’s nine neighbors on high alert, with most concern for Congo Republic, which shares a long border with it on the Congo and Ubangi rivers, and Central African Republic to the north, although the risk of international spread was still seen as low.
The Organization and the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres already have specialists on the ground and hope to have a mobile laboratory up and running this weekend, he said.
It is hoping the United Nations can set up a helicopter air bridge to bring 20 WHO specialists to the site this weekend and then clear an airstrip for small aircraft so that hundreds of protective suits and other equipment can be flown in.
Congo notified the WHO of the outbreak on May 8, and there have been around 32 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the deadly disease since April 4, including 18 deaths, Salama said.
“Even though this is a remote rural area, which normally gives us a sense of reassurance in terms of the spread of an outbreak, the problem here is that we already have three separate locations covering as much as 60 km and maybe more.”
Three of the cases, including one of the deaths, involved healthcare workers, which was potentially “an amplification factor” for outbreaks, he said.