The World Health Organization has confirmed that one person among a large group of people infected with hemorrhagic fever in a remote forested part of the Democratic Republic of Congo has tested positive for the Ebola virus. At least nine others are suspected of being infected and three have died.
The outbreak is the first in the country since 2014 and has raised alarms about the possibility of a new epidemic.
Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, said details of the extent of the outbreak are still unclear. But a letter from the DRC’s health ministry to the WHO suggests that there may be more cases.
The Ebola infection was confirmed from tests on a group of people exhibiting symptoms since April 22 in the province of Bas-Uélé in northeast DRC. There are a total of nine “suspected” Ebola cases reported and three of those patients have died. It is unclear whether the confirmed case is among those.
The ministry said it is beginning to trace the contacts of those who may have been infected and that it is issuing protective kits for the health workers involved.
“Our country must confront an outbreak of the Ebola virus that constitutes a public health crisis of international significance,” the ministry said.
DRC officials said the confirmed infection involved the Zaire strain, which was the most common one present during the 2014-15 outbreak. Scientists are in the late stages of developing a vaccine that targets that specific strain, and it is likely to be made available for use if the outbreak is found to be large enough to warrant such an intervention. The vaccine has not yet been approved the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but could be made available under an emergency use authorization. The WHO has previously said it was preparing to make an initial 300,000 doses of the vaccine available in case of an outbreak.
Yokouidé Allarangar, WHO representative in the DRC, said in a statement on Friday that the first teams of specialists — including epidemiologists, biologists, and experts in the areas of social mobilization, risk communication and community engagement and also personnel specializing in water, hygiene and sanitation — are scheduled to reach the affected area, which is about 800 miles from the capital Kinshasa, “today or tomorrow.”
Allarangar also appealed to other medical organizations to join in the response. A number of them, including Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have already offered their support.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is aware of the reported outbreak, but so far has not provided any epidemiological or laboratory support. Such requests for CDC assistance are typically made through the WHO or individual countries. The CDC, which established an office in the DRC in 2002, has staff who are in communication with the DRC ministry of health and WHO.
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