The World Health Organization said Thursday it is launching a “no regrets” response to an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the number of suspected cases has risen from nine to 20 in the past week.
The WHO faced withering criticism for waiting too long to declare the massive 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa an international public health emergency. That epidemic killed 11,000 people before the belated international response stamped out the disease last year.
So far, Congolese authorities have reported two cases lab-confirmed cases and 18 suspected ones.
“As of now, we do not know the full extent of the outbreak. And as we deploy teams over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to understand more and more exactly what we are dealing with, and we’ll be able to update you further,” Mr. Salama said. “We’ve also learned never, ever, to underestimate the Ebola virus disease, and we’ll be remaining vigilant and ensure we have a no-regrets approach to this outbreak as we move forward.”
The first, or “index,” case was reported April 22 in a 39-year-old who started vomiting and bleeding and died on the way to the hospital in the Likati area of Bas Uele Province.
His two closest contacts, a caregiver and a motorcycle driver who tried to take him to the hospital, have since died. It is the country’s eighth outbreak of Ebola since 1976, when the virus was discovered.
The WHO said a contingency fund, established as part of reforms after the faulty response in West Africa, is helping it respond quickly this time.
“Really the idea here is to stop an outbreak early on in its tracks before it becomes out of control,” Mr. Salama said.
There is no licensed vaccine for Ebola, though a trial version showed promise during trials in Guinea during the West Africa outbreak, and can be deployed for “compassionate use” with permission from Congo’s regulatory authorities.
The vaccine needs to be kept at minus-80 degrees Celsius, making it difficult to transport to remote regions. Yet Mr. Salama said they’ll find a way to get it there if the government requests the shots.
International health officials are also planning logistics for ethical deployment.
“We’re working on all of those elements, so that when we get the green light, we can move extremely quickly,” Mr. Salama said.
Merck, which is trying to license its vaccine, known in lab-speak as VSV-ZEBOV, said it has been in direct contact with the WHO, Doctors Without Borders and other organizations about the situation in Congo.
The company said it is ready to ship the investigational vaccine “once appropriate approvals are in place.”
The experimental shot proved to be 100-percent effective during a 2015 trial in Guinea.
Among the 5,800-plus people who received the vaccine, not one of them caught the disease 10 or more days after vaccination.
Yet there were 23 cases of Ebola among those who participated in the study but did not get vaccinated, according to results published last year in the Lancet medical journal.
The U.S. government, which set up local command centers during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, is also playing a role in the response to Congo.
The Centers for Disease Control said it is complying with requests from WHO and local health officials by deploying at least two Ebola experts to the region.
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