“The outbreak is stabilising, but still the outbreak is not over,” were the words of WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus to newsmen on a visit to Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, in a bid to caution against declaring victory too early in Congo’s Ebola epidemic, in spite of encouraging signs that it may be brought under control.
“We are still at war, and we need to continue to strengthen our surveillance and … be very vigilant.”
WHO officials on Friday expressed cautious optimism that the epidemic of the deadly virus was stabilising, partly owing to the swift deployment of vaccines.
But a day earlier, Congo’s health ministry reported its first confirmed case of Ebola in over a week, in the rural community of Iboko.
Ghebreyesus said 2,200 people had been vaccinated, and that case management and tracing contacts of victims had gone well.
But he said: “It’s not over until it is over. Even if one case crosses into Congo (Republic) and gets to an urban area, that could trigger another epidemic”.
The hemorrhagic fever has killed 27 people since the outbreak began in April, and there have been 62 cases, 38 of which were confirmed in a laboratory.
A further 14 are probable Ebola cases, and 10 more people are suspected of having Ebola.
In contrast to past Ebola outbreaks health workers have moved quickly to halt Congo’s latest epidemic.
Ebola killed at least 11,300 people from 2013 to 2016 in West Africa and during that outbreak WHO was criticised for not taking it seriously enough in its early stages.
On May 14, WHO gave the go-ahead by officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo to import and use an experimental Ebola vaccine in the country.
Vaccinations could begin on May 17.
The vaccine, developed by Merck in 2016, has proven safe and effective in human trials, but it is still experimental as it does not yet have a license.
It must be kept at -60 to -80 degrees Celsius (-76°F to -112°F), creating huge logistical challenges.
The shot, which was tested in Guinea in 2015 at the end of a vast Ebola outbreak in West Africa, is designed for use in a so-called “ring vaccination” approach.
This would mean that when a new Ebola case is diagnosed, all people who might have been in recent contact with them are traced and vaccinated to try and prevent the disease’s spread.