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WHO races to contain Ebola in the DRC as it confirms a third case

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World Health Organization employees decontaminate the house of a pastor who just tested positive for Ebola on June 13, 2019 in Beni.

Sally Hayden | SOPA pictures | LightRocket | Getty Images

The World Health Organization confirmed a third case of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Friday as health officials attempt to vaccinate residents and contain the possible outbreak.

Earlier this week, the global health agency confirmed that a woman has died of the disease in Butembo, a city in North Kivu province and the epicenter of a previous Ebola outbreak that was declared over in June. WHO has since confirmed two more cases, including one more person who has died, said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program, on Friday.

The number of people who may have been exposed to the virus rose from over 70 on Monday to 182 on Friday, Ryan said. He added that all but three of these people had been contacted and more than half of them had previously been vaccinated against Ebola in previous outbreaks.

“We’re seeing some benefits from previous vaccination, but of course we need to look at how long the vaccine protects,” he said.

He added that new vaccine shipments had arrived in Butembo this week. Ultra-cold chain storage equipment will be set up and staff trained in Butembo, Ryan said.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo also has other therapeutics, including anti-body monoclonal Ebola treatments, in its capital, Kinshasa, and another city, Mbandaka, Ryan said, adding that they will be flown to North Kivu over the weekend. Democratic Republic of the Congo has enough vaccine for 16,000 people in the country, Ryan said, but it’s not clear how much has gotten to Butembo.

WHO is “still unclear about the original community source” of the first Ebola case, Ryan said, adding that the National Institute for Biomedical Research of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is sequencing samples of the virus at its main laboratory in Kinshasa to see if the new cases are associated with the most recent butembo outbreak. Ryan said the results are expected over the weekend.

The Ebola outbreak, declared in June, lasted almost two years. It was the second largest in the world and at the time of its end there were a total of 3,481 cases and 2,299 deaths, according to the WHO.

WHO noted that efforts to respond to outbreaks in North Kivu province have been particularly difficult due to the ongoing violent conflict in the area, which is occupied by over 100 different armed groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ryan said WHO is working with non-governmental organizations, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other United Nations agencies such as UNICEF to respond to the new Ebola cases.

In contrast to the highly infectious coronavirus, which can be transmitted by people without symptoms, it is believed that Ebola spreads mainly through people who are already visibly ill. The virus spreads through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of people who are sick or have died of the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ebola has an average death rate of 50% which, according to the WHO, can vary depending on the outbreak.

“Of course, two cases and now a third don’t seem like many, many cases given the global situation at Covid, but we’ve been waiting for Ebola to return in Eastern Congo and we will.” do everything in our power to assist the government in responding, “said Ryan.

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Robert Dunfee