Officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have said the Ebola outbreak in the vast central African country has entered a new phase after a case of the deadly virus was detected in the north-west city of Mbandaka.
The first urban case significantly escalates the risk of an epidemic, and has prompted the UN World Health Organization to convene an emergency committee on Friday to consider the danger of the disease spreading to other countries, according to The Guardian.
Late on Thursday, the country’s ministry of health announced 11 new confirmed Ebola cases and two deaths, taking the total number of cases to 45 (14 confirmed, 10 suspected, 21 probable). The deaths have occurred in Bikoro, a rural area about 150km from Mbandaka.
So far, the deaths believed to have been caused by the outbreak have been detected in more isolated areas, giving authorities a better chance of ring-fencing the virus.
The WHO’s expert committee will decide whether to declare a “public health emergency of international concern”, which would trigger more international involvement, mobilising research and resources, the WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said on Thursday.
The agency, which on Wednesday deployed the first experimental vaccines in the vast central African country, expressed concern about the disease reaching Mbandaka.
The city of a million is located on the banks of the Congo river, a major thoroughfare for trade and transport into Kinshasa, though experts said that transport on the river from Mbandaka to the capital could take several weeks, slowing any potential spread of the disease. Air transport is limited and very expensive.
“We are entering a new phase of the Ebola outbreak that is now affecting three health zones, including an urban health zone,” Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the health minister, said in a statement on Wednesday evening. “Since the announcement of the alert in Mbandaka, our epidemiologists are working in the field to identify people who have been in contact with suspected cases.”
Kalenga said authorities would intensify population tracing at all air, river and road routes out of the city.