Ebola outbreak in the Congo spreads to city of 1m people

Ebola outbreak in the Congo spreads to a new city where one MILLION people live in the epidemic that has killed 1,600

  • Health ministers confirmed a pastor was infected after visiting Butembo
  • They raced to find and vaccinate other travellers on his bus
  • It has been feared since the outbreak began that Ebola would reach Goma
  • Authorities have urged calm amid more armed attacks on treatment centres
  • Two health workers have been murdered after months of threats 

Ebola has spread to the Congolese city of Goma, which has a population of more than a million people, as the virus continues to devastate the region.  

The victim is a pastor who had arrived in the city by bus after visiting Butembo, a town around 200miles (320km) north in the centre of the outbreak.

He had been preaching at a church where he would have touched worshippers ‘including the sick’, the country’s health ministry said on Sunday. 

Authorities have urged people to remain calm after the government said the chances of the virus spreading were ‘low’.

But tensions are high and two health workers were murdered in their homes over the weekend.

Experts have said the escalation was ‘unexpected’ and should serve as a reminder to the World Health Organization to declare a global emergency. 

In this, the second worst outbreak in history, 1,665 people have died from Ebola since August last year.

The victim is a pastor who had arrived in the city via a busy bus after visiting Butembo, a town where the outbreak is centred in the province of North Kivu. Pictured, health worker in Beni

Experts have said the escalation was ‘unexpected’ and should serve as a reminder to the World Health Organization to declare a global emergency. Pictured, an Ebola treatment centre, Beni

The preacher’s symptoms first started on Tuesday after he left Butembo by bus on the Friday and arrived in Goma on Sunday, the DRC ministry said. 

The other passengers, 18 in all, and the driver will be vaccinated against Ebola today, said the ministry. It is not clear where the patient is being held. 

‘Given that the patient was quickly identified, as well as all the passengers on the bus from Butembo, the risk of the disease spreading in the city of Goma is low’, the ministry said.

Dr Mark Eccleston-Turner, an expert on Global Health Law at Keele University said: ‘The identification of a case in Goma is a deeply disappointing, if not totally unexpected development in the Ebola response in the DRC.

‘As a large city and transport and trade hub the virus taking hold in Goma could have devastating consequences for the response to Ebola in the DRC.’ 

Health experts have long feared that Ebola could make its way to Goma, which is the capital of the North Kivu province in eastern Congo.

It borders neighbouring Rwanda, which has been preparing for possible cases since the outbreak began nearly a year ago. 

Health workers in Goma were vaccinated as early as December when the outbreak first hit Butembo, around 180 miles (300km) north.

The two towns are separated by poor roads under the threat of armed groups, which have hampered response teams across the Congo. 

At the weekend, two Ebola awareness campaigners were murdered in their homes in the North Kivu province.

The pair were killed after months of threats, the health ministry said, but it is not yet clear who was involved.

Locals view foreign health care providers with deep suspicion and do not trust Western healthcare volunteers or the government.

The UN is convening a ‘high-level event’ in Geneva today to discuss response and preparedness for the Ebola outbreak.

It will be attended by government ministers from the DRC and Britain, senior officials of the World Bank, the WHO, and other UN agencies.

The travellers on the bus were identified quickly and will be vaccinated, health ministers said. Pictured, emergency team of first responders in Goma

Health experts have long feared that Ebola could make its way to Goma, which is the capital of North Kivu province. Pictured, an ambulance medically equipped to take the Ebola patient to a treatment facility 

More than 2,000 cases and 1,400 deaths of Ebola have been recorded in the DRC since the outbreak was declared in August last year

WHAT IS MAKING THIS OUTBREAK DIFFICULT TO STOP? 

The current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been continuing for six months.

Dr Nathalie MacDermott, an expert on Ebola at Imperial College London, shared some of her thoughts on the situation with MailOnline.

Dr MacDermott said: ‘The current outbreak has posed significant challenges to medical teams on the ground. 

‘The region has suffered several decades of ongoing conflict and militia activity. This has affected the ability of responders to engage with communities to provide awareness and encourage them to see medical teams early for testing and treatment. 

‘There has also been significant risk to medical teams, some of whom have been attacked, and in some cases killed, by fearful community members and militia groups operating in the region. 

‘As such, and despite the use of an effective vaccine, the epidemic has continued to spread to different communities.

‘This was recently exacerbated by violence preventing responders accessing affected communities. This resulted from affected communities not being able to vote in national elections.’

Dr Eccleston-Turner said: ‘This is further evidence that Ebola is in need of a coordinated international response.

‘It is imperative that the issue of the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern is revisited by the WHO.’

Last month, the WHO said the outbreak did not qualify as an international threat, even after an infected family travelled to neighbouring Uganda.

It was the third time the WHO came under pressure to declare the outbreak a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern), a formal declaration which has only been made four times in history.  

Dr Eccleston-Turner said: ‘A PHEIC is an extraordinary event with public health risk to other countries, and requires a coordinated international response: the exact sort of event which was intended to be declared a health emergency.’    

Nearly 700 people with Ebola have been cured, and total of 160,239 people have been vaccinated against the highly contagious haemorrhagic fever.

The UN’s World Health Organization had been hopeful it would be able to contain the latest epidemic, thanks in part to a new vaccine.

The disease spreads when humans touch the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of an infected person, or objects contaminated by such fluids.

The outbreak is the 10th in DR Congo in 40 years, putting all countries in the region on alert.

It is the second deadliest on record globally, after the epidemic that struck West Africa in 2014-2016, killing more than 11,300 people. 

WHAT IS EBOLA AND HOW DEADLY IS IT?

Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, killed at least 11,000 across the world after it decimated West Africa and spread rapidly over the space of two years.

That epidemic was officially declared over back in January 2016, when Liberia was announced to be Ebola-free by the WHO.

The country, rocked by back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2003, was hit the hardest by the fever, with 40 per cent of the deaths having occurred there.

Sierra Leone reported the highest number of Ebola cases, with nearly of all those infected having been residents of the nation.

WHERE DID IT BEGIN? 

An analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the outbreak began in Guinea – which neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.

A team of international researchers were able to trace the epidemic back to a two-year-old boy in Meliandou – about 400 miles (650km) from the capital, Conakry.

Emile Ouamouno, known more commonly as Patient Zero, may have contracted the deadly virus by playing with bats in a hollow tree, a study suggested.

HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE STRUCK DOWN? 

Figures show nearly 29,000 people were infected from Ebola – meaning the virus killed around 40 per cent of those it struck.

Cases and deaths were also reported in Nigeria, Mali and the US – but on a much smaller scale, with 15 fatalities between the three nations.

Health officials in Guinea reported a mysterious bug in the south-eastern regions of the country before the WHO confirmed it was Ebola. 

Ebola was first identified by scientists in 1976, but the most recent outbreak dwarfed all other ones recorded in history, figures show.

HOW DID HUMANS CONTRACT THE VIRUS? 

Scientists believe Ebola is most often passed to humans by fruit bats, but antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees could also be to blame.

It can be transmitted between humans through blood, secretions and other bodily fluids of people – and surfaces – that have been infected.

IS THERE A TREATMENT? 

The WHO warns that there is ‘no proven treatment’ for Ebola – but dozens of drugs and jabs are being tested in case of a similarly devastating outbreak.

Hope exists though, after an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, protected nearly 6,000 people. The results were published in The Lancet journal. 

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