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Ebola outbreak in the DRC that has ‘killed 25 people’ has the ‘potential for rapid expansion’

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has the ‘potential for rapid expansion’, an infectious disease expert fears.

At least 25 people are feared to have been killed by the deadly virus in the African nation, according to the World Health Organization.

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Dr Derek Gatherer, a virologist from Lancaster University, warns the fresh outbreak is ‘reminiscent’ of the 2014 Ebola pandemic.

The virus, considered one of the most lethal pathogens in existence, decimated West Africa and killed more than 11,000 people.

Officials in the DRC have already branded the fresh outbreak, which has seen 54 suspected cases, a ‘public health emergency’.

International help has poured in as aid workers battle round-the-clock to contain the outbreak. 

A mass vaccination campaign has also begun and all neighbouring countries have been placed on high alert. 

The current Ebola outbreak began in the poorly-connected region of Ikoko-Impenge and Bikoro. It has since travelled 80 miles (130km) north to Mbandaka. There is fears it will spread to Kinshasa –364 miles (586km) south on the river, where 12 million people live

The current Ebola outbreak began in the poorly-connected region of Ikoko-Impenge and Bikoro – in the north east of the DRC.

It has since travelled 80 miles (130km) north to Mbandaka, a port city on the river Congo – an essential waterway – with around 1.2 million inhabitants.

Dr Gatherer said there is a ‘major concern’ it will spread to Kinshasa –364 miles (586km) south on the river, where 12 million people live.

The city, which is the capital of the DRC, has an international airport with regular flights to European cities Zurich, Frankfurt and Brussels. 

In an editorial for a scientific journal, Dr Gatherer wrote: ‘The current outbreak has the potential for rapid expansion in numbers.

He added: ‘Mbandaka is a port on the River Congo, the main arterial transport link from DRC’s capital Kinshasa to inland cities.

‘With poor to non-existent provision of running water, sewage and electricity, the similarities with the urban situation… during the west African outbreak are obvious.’

‘The risk of transmission to Kinshasa – central Africa’s main megacity – either by river or by air from Mbandaka’s regional airport, is a major concern.’

Writing in the Journal of General Virology, he also warned the ‘question of how to prevent future Ebola outbreaks remains depressingly open’.

Dr Gatherer described the DRC basin as ‘Ebola’s heartland’. The virus – endemic in the country – is named after the Ebola river.

The current outbreak of Ebola is caused by the Zaire strain.

There has been 54 suspected cases since the beginning of the outbreak in April but only 35 have been confirmed in lab tests.

Twelve deaths from Ebola have been confirmed so far, including two health care workers. Another two have been confirmed to have the virus.

In its last situation report, released Tuesday, the WHO said 906 contacts have been recorded and are ‘being followed up actively’.

At least 25 people are feared to have been killed by the deadly virus in the African nation, according to the World Health Organization (UNICEF workers pictured in DRC)

At least 25 people are feared to have been killed by the deadly virus in the African nation, according to the World Health Organization (UNICEF workers pictured in DRC)

‘Our country is facing another epidemic of the Ebola virus, which constitutes an international public health emergency,’ the Congo Health Ministry said earlier this month.

DRC escaped the brutal Ebola pandemic, which was finally declared over in January 2016 – but it was struck by a smaller outbreak last year.

Four DRC residents died from the virus in 2017. The outbreak lasted just 42 days and international aid teams were praised for their prompt responses.

The new outbreak is the DRC’s ninth since the discovery of Ebola in the country in 1976.

Health experts credit an awareness of the disease among the population and local medical staff’s experience treating for past successes containing its spread.

DRC’s vast, remote geography also gives it an advantage, as outbreaks are often localised and relatively easy to isolate.

Neighbouring countries have already been alerted about the new outbreak of Ebola, which can cause severe bleeding.

DRC borders Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and the Republic of Congo

Kenya – which doesn’t border the country – earlier this month issued warnings over the possible spread of Ebola.

Thermal guns to detect anyone with a fever have been put in place along its border with Uganda and at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Concerned health officials in Nigeria, which also doesn’t border the DRC, have put similar measures in place to keep its population safe.

Ebola is often fatal if untreated – around 50 per cent of patients die. It is transmitted to people from wild animals and can be spread from human to human.

The outbreak comes after the World Bank stated last year that Earth isn’t ready for an ‘inevitable’ pandemic, after stimulating four possible scenarios.

The research was done in an attempt to assess why the global response to the Ebola pandemic was so sloppy and to fill those gaps before another disaster strikes.

The 2014 international response to the Ebola pandemic drew criticism for moving too slowly and prompted an apology from the WHO.

But international aid teams have moved much quicker in response this time – with vaccination campaigns already underway in several regions.

Hundreds of locals and frontline health workers in Bikoro, Iboko and Mbandaka have already been given the experimental vaccine, known as rVSV-ZEBOV.

Currently, there are no proven Ebola vaccines – but the rVSV-ZEBOV has been shown to be effective in trials in Guinea during the pandemic. 

However, a study by scientists at Kent University published earlier this month argued mass vaccination programmes won’t stop Ebola outbreaks.

Writing in the Frontiers in Immunology, they revealed that controlling an outbreak of the virus depends entirely on surveillance and the isolation of cases. 

Five other experimental drugs will be used as part of clinical trials to examine their effects in protecting against Ebola, the DRC’s Health Ministry has said.

WHAT IS EBOLA AND HOW DEADLY IS IT?

Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, killed at least 11,000 across the world after it decimated West Africa and spread rapidly over the space of two years.

That pandemic was officially declared over back in January 2016, when Liberia was announced to be Ebola-free by the WHO.

The country, rocked by back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2003, was hit the hardest by the fever, with 40 per cent of the deaths having occurred there.

Sierra Leone reported the highest number of Ebola cases, with nearly of all those infected having been residents of the nation.

WHERE DID IT BEGIN? 

An analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the outbreak began in Guinea – which neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.

A team of international researchers were able to trace the pandemic back to a two-year-old boy in Meliandou – about 400 miles (650km) from the capital, Conakry.

Emile Ouamouno, known more commonly as Patient Zero, may have contracted the deadly virus by playing with bats in a hollow tree, a study suggested.

HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE STRUCK DOWN? 

WHICH COUNTRIES WERE STRUCK DOWN BY EBOLA DURING THE 2014-16 PANDEMIC? (CDC figures)
COUNTRY                                                CASES  DEATHS DEATH RATE (%) 
GUINEA 3,814 2,544 66.7%
SIERRA LEONE  14,124  3,956  28.0% 
LIBERIA  10,678  4,810  45.0% 
NIGERIA  20  40.0% 
SENEGAL  N/A 
SPAIN  N/A 
US  25.0% 
MALI  75.0%
UK  N/A
ITALY  N/A 

Figures show nearly 29,000 people were infected from Ebola – meaning the virus killed around 40 per cent of those it struck.

Cases and deaths were also reported in Nigeria, Mali and the US – but on a much smaller scale, with 15 fatalities between the three nations.

Health officials in Guinea reported a mysterious bug in the south-eastern regions of the country before the WHO confirmed it was Ebola. 

Ebola was first identified by scientists in 1976, but the most recent outbreak dwarfed all other ones recorded in history, figures show.

HOW DID HUMANS CONTRACT THE VIRUS? 

Scientists believe Ebola is most often passed to humans by fruit bats, but antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees could also be to blame.

It can be transmitted between humans through blood, secretions and other bodily fluids of people – and surfaces – that have been infected.

IS THERE A TREATMENT? 

The WHO warns that there is ‘no proven treatment’ for Ebola – but dozens of drugs and jabs are being tested in case of a similarly devastating outbreak.

Hope exists though, after an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, protected nearly 6,000 people. The results were published in The Lancet journal. 



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