Officials fear Ebola epidemic may be spinning beyond their control, threatening regional spread

Wednesday, October 3, 2018
By Paul Martin

OCTOBER 2, 2018

Public health officials are expressing deepening concern that the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be spinning beyond their control and could soon spill over into neighboring countries including Uganda and Rwanda.

With Ebola response teams facing restrictions on their movements in a conflict zone, officials fear containment efforts are falling further behind the virus. And if response teams lose sight of where the virus goes, it could spread undetected and unchecked in places where they cannot safely travel.

“At this point in an epidemic, we’d probably be peaking in terms of knowing where the virus is. And now with the insecurity, that’s compromised,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization’s emergency preparedness and response program.

To date in this outbreak — DRC’s 10th — there have been 161 cases and 105 deaths.

The threat of a widening epidemic was compounded with a discovery last week that two people infected with Ebola had fled from the Congolese city of Beni to Tchomia, near the border with Uganda, prompting the WHO to warn that the risk that the virus will spread to DRC’s eastern neighbors is “very high.” Previously the risk of regional spread had been assessed as high. (The risk of spread outside the region remains low.)

Uganda and Rwanda, with the help of the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other international partners, have been preparing for weeks to deal with the possibility of imported cases.

Uganda’s drug regulatory agency has been going through the process of approving a protocol to use an Ebola vaccine being developed by Merck; that vaccine is currently being deployed in DRC in a “ring vaccination” strategy. Under the approach, people who have been in contact with an Ebola case — and the contacts of each contact — are vaccinated to block the virus’s ability to spread.

Uganda is planning to adopt the ring vaccination strategy as well.

But it also intends to pre-vaccinate health workers in high-risk health zones near the DRC border. Initial supplies of vaccine are already in the country and that work could start within days.

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