The deadly Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has reached the crowded regional capital of Goma for the first time, raising fears that an epidemic that has claimed more than 1,600 lives could escalate.
Congo’s health ministry said a man tested positive for the virus after arriving in the city on Sunday. The victim, a priest, travelled by bus from the town of Butembo — a six-hour drive north and a former epicentre of the outbreak. The bus passed three checkpoints designed to intercept people with symptoms of Ebola, the health ministry admitted.
While the officials insist the risk that the virus could spread in the city of 1m people is low, the case represents a new phase in the outbreak that has continued to spread for 11 months despite a large international response. The haemorrhagic fever is transmitted through bodily fluids, putting anyone who came into contact with the priest before or during his journey at risk of infection.
Controlling the outbreak, already the second biggest in history, has been challenging despite the availability of a new vaccine. Eastern Congo has suffered from years of low-level conflict and existing suspicion of the central government in Kinshasa was exacerbated, aid workers say, by poor communications during the early phases of the response.
Since the first case last August, 1,665 people have died, while a further 698 people have contracted the virus and survived following treatment.
Aaron Aruna, the health ministry’s senior official in eastern Congo, said the infected priest was an “isolated case” and insisted the threat from the epidemic was receding. The other bus passengers had been identified and would be vaccinated, the ministry added. “The epidemic is in the process of being brought under control,” Mr Aruna said.
But given the rapid and unpredictable spread of the outbreak, the chances of other cases being identified in Goma or elsewhere cannot be ruled out.
“Sadly there is no evidence that this epidemic is coming to an end,” said Natalie Roberts, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières, the aid agency. She added: “The case in Goma was always going to happen eventually. What is more worrying is that the population in Beni and Butembo that first reported cases a year ago are still in the full swing of the epidemic and have no real chance to protect themselves.”
Disagreements between international aid organisations and the Congolese government, which is leading the response, have been common in recent months. The country’s health minister last week banned the testing of a second experimental vaccine that other health experts said could replenish dwindling stocks and allow many more people in the region to be vaccinated.
“There is a real need to make some proactive actions to try to bring this epidemic to an end, otherwise such cases and deaths will continue,” said Ms Roberts.
Tariq Riebl, emergency response director for the International Rescue Committee, an aid group, praised the initial response to the Goma case, where health workers appear to have isolated the priest quickly after identifying the virus. “Things were handled quite well and we should credit the health centre staff,” Mr Riebl said by phone from Goma.
Unless there was evidence of active transmission of the virus between individuals in Goma, there was no need for further alarm, he said. Until then, efforts should remain focused on monitoring those individuals the priest had been in contact with, he added.
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