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WHO And Congolese Officials Scramble To Contain Ebola Outbreak


The World Health Organization says an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has reached a new, more worrying phase after a case turned up in a port city on the Congo River. Congolese health officials say that so far, there have been 44 suspected cases of Ebola since April. And 23 of those people have died. Aid agencies are rushing supplies and medical specialists to Congo to try and contain this outbreak. And we have more from NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Among public health officials, the worst-case Ebola outbreak would be one that's spreading in a crowded urban environment that's a major transportation hub and has dilapidated health care facilities. Unfortunately, that's what's happening right now in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The epicenter of the outbreak is an extremely remote part of the Equateur province. But then this week, a new case was found nearly a hundred miles away in Mbandaka, a city of more than a million people. Peter Salama, the World Health Organization's deputy director general for emergencies, told NPR that the declaration of urban Ebola is a major shift in this outbreak.

PETER SALAMA: When you have cases in urban areas, the number of contacts can amplify so much more quickly. And therefore, the increase in the transmission can be much more exponential rather than linear.

BEAUBIEN: And adding to the concern of health officials, this city is a major port on the Congo River.

SALAMA: In a sense, the rivers in the northwest part of DRC are the highways. There are very few paved roads, so people use them for transportation. So it's quite plausible that the virus could spread down the rivers.

BEAUBIEN: The Congo River provides a direct link to the bustling megacity of Kinshasa and could also potentially allow the virus to spread throughout central Africa.

SALAMA: And that really would be an extremely difficult scenario for us to be able to cope with.

BEAUBIEN: Which is why the World Health Organization along with Congolese officials and a bunch of other aid agencies are scrambling right now to try to contain this outbreak before it grows much larger. Four thousand doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine have been shipped into the DRC. Plans are being developed to try to vaccinate hundreds if not thousands of people against the virus. Doctors Without Borders is setting up isolation wards and Ebola treatment centers both near the epicenter of the outbreak and in the river port city of Mbandaka. The Red Cross is recruiting local volunteers to collect and safely bury the dead.

KARSTEN VOIGT: We have now 20 volunteers trained on how to do these burials. And that is a difficult task, a very difficult task...

BEAUBIEN: Karsten Voigt is the operations manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross in the DRC.

VOIGT: ...Because you have to really follow all the security protocols when you put on your protective gear, when you take it off, the way you handle the body. It is psychologically demanding because you deal with families who, of course, are in distress.

BEAUBIEN: Voigt was just in Bikoro, the remote village where most of the cases have been reported. He says getting supplies into the area, however, is extremely difficult. It took him 11 hours in a 4x4 to drive roughly 75 miles from the nearest airstrip to Bikoro.

VOIGT: It is a very difficult road. It goes through the bush. It's a dirt track. The bridges have collapsed, so you've got to cross the river. It's very difficult to reach.

BEAUBIEN: The virus has also spread to other villages in the area that are only accessible by foot or canoe. The area is so remote that the U.N. is using helicopters to ferry in medical supplies.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.


Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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