The World Health Organization said on Friday it hopes to deploy an experimental Ebola vaccine to tackle an outbreak in a remote area of Congo to prevent it spreading, particularly to the provincial capital of 1 million people.
Congo reported the outbreak on Tuesday, with 32 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the disease since April 4, including 18 deaths. A new suspected case was reported on Friday.
The WHO is moving quickly, having been criticised for bungling its response to a 2014-2016 outbreak that killed more than 11 300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“We are very concerned and planning for all scenarios,including the worst case scenario,” Peter Salama, WHO’s Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response, told a regular UN briefing in Geneva.
The outbreak area is 15 hours by motorbike from the closest town and has “absolutely dire” infrastructure, Salama said, so the WHO wants to send in 20-40 experts by helicopter this weekend and then clear an airstrip for more supplies.
“This is going to be tough and it’s going to be costly to stamp out this outbreak,” he said.
The immediate risk was to the provincial capital Mbandaka,with about 1 million inhabitants, but Congo’s nine neighbours have also been put on high alert in case the disease crosses a border, especially by river to the Republic of Congo or Central African Republic.
Gambia, Guinea and Nigeria have already said they are taking steps to ensure the virus does not spread, and Kenya’s Health Ministry said on Friday it would bolster screening of travellers with thermo scanners at airports.
Normally a remote setting would reduce the chance of the disease spreading. But already there are three separate locations covering 60 km or more, and some of the victims were healthcare workers, potentially “an amplification factor” for outbreaks, Salama said.
The local culture, with traditional healers and communal burials where there was close contact with the deceased, could cause “super-spreading” of Ebola, which kills up to 90% of sufferers, he said.