The World Health Organization had reported two probable Ebola cases in Wangata earlier this week, reportedly affecting two brothers who were returning from a funeral in Bikoro, the epicenter of the outbreak. According to Kalenga, one case later tested positive for Ebola.
With the confirmation of the Ebola case, Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the country’s minister of health, announced that the outbreak has spread to a “new phase” because an “urban health zone” is now affected by the disease.
“It is very concerning,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told HuffPost. “Look, the reason why most Ebola outbreaks have tended to dissipate quickly is because they’ve mostly been in rural areas, so there haven’t been many people to spread it.”
When Ebola enters a more urban zone, there are more people to spread the disease and more contacts for health authorities to trace, Jha explained, making it much harder to track and contain. However, Jha pointed to two major changes since the devasting 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak: The world is watching, and health workers are deploying an experimental vaccine.
The first batch of the experimental Ebola vaccine, developed by the pharmaceutical company Merck, arrived Wednesday in the national capital of Kinshasa, and it will be targeted for use for “exposed health professionals, people who have been in contact with confirmed cases and contacts of these contacts,” according to Kalenga.
The reason why most Ebola outbreaks have tended to dissipate quickly is because they’ve mostly been in rural areas.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute
Mbandaka, which contains the health zone of Wangata, is located on the Congo River ― the “superhighway of Central Africa,” according to Jeremy Konyndyk, who led parts of the 2014 Ebola response for the Obama administration and is now a senior policy fellow for the Washington-based Center for Global Development.
This proximity to the Congo River creates a potential pathway for the disease to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, which is home to over 12 million people. Then to the immediate north, there’s the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo, Brazzaville, whose population is 2 million. And the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, where over 730,000 people live, is not too far away.
“This [urban case announcement] confirms my worry that early reassuring messages from authorities were premature,” Ron Klain, who served as Ebola czar under President Barack Obama during the last major crisis, told HuffPost. “This requires a more urgent and comprehensive response, and a need for increased U.S. leadership and involvement.”
As of yet, the WHO Contingency Fund for Emergencies, The Wellcome Trust, the U.K., the UN, and Gavi have contributed $8 million to contain the outbreak, which WHO estimates will cost at least $26 million to quell over three months. However, that was before news of the confirmed case in Wangata.
Last week, President Donald Trump proposed cutting the $252 million in Ebola response funds for U.S. agencies. The day the WHO announced the Ebola outbreak, the global health security division was disbanded within the National Security Council.
Though only three cases of Ebola have been officially confirmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo so far, 41 other suspected or probable cases have been recorded since the start of the epidemic. In 23 cases, patients have died, said Kalenga, the country’s health minister.
The DRC has decreed free health care in the epidemic zones in light of the new case’s confirmation. Kalenga also warned people to “absolutely avoid touching and washing the deceased. This gesture may shock but it can save your life and that of the entire community.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.