By Aaron Ross
DAKAR (Reuters) – It is too soon to say that an outbreak of Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo is stabilizing due to difficulties identifying new cases near rebel-controlled areas, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday.
Since the latest outbreak was declared on Aug. 1, 112 confirmed and probable cases have been identified in eastern Congo’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces, including 75 deaths, according to overnight data from Congo’s health ministry.
Some areas close to the outbreak’s epicenter in the town of Mangina are off-limits to health workers for security reasons, hampering efforts to control the spread of the disease.
“If one case is hidden in the red zone or an inaccessible area, it’s dangerous. It can just spark a fire, just one case,” Tedros told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference.
“There is a decline (in new cases)… but still, considering the accessibility and red zones, we cannot say that the outbreak is stabilizing,” he told journalists earlier, adding that the next seven to ten days would be critical to controlling the outbreak.
His words echoed warnings from the International Federation of Red Cross and International Rescue Committee, which on Wednesday called for prompt action to avert a repeat of the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. More than 11,000 people were killed in that outbreak.
Congo has experienced 10 outbreaks of Ebola since it was discovered in the country’s forested north in 1976. The disease causes haemmorhagic fever and usually kills about half of the people it infects.
“Without a swift, concerted and efficient response, this outbreak has the potential to be the worst ever seen,” IRC said in a statement.
The current response has been aided by a new vaccine, which proved effective against Congo’s last outbreak earlier this year, and experimental treatments that are being used for the first time.
More than 4,500 health workers and contacts of Ebola cases have been vaccinated and at least 17 patients have received treatments. Tedros said all of them were doing well.
“Now we have vaccines and we have therapeutics and no one should really die of Ebola. But for this to happen first of all we need to identify cases as early as possible,” he said.
The WHO has asked a number of countries as well as local religious leaders and chiefs to negotiate access to ‘red zones’ with rebel groups in the area, he said.
(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Richard Balmforth)