An ongoing outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Africa has become much more worrying, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports. While previous cases of the often fatal viral disease had been found in rural areas during this most recent outbreak, the first urban case of Ebola was recently confirmed in Mbandaka, a city in the northwestern region of the DRC with 1.2 million residents.
That discovery raises the chances that this current outbreak could grow much larger, like the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa that ultimately claimed over 10,000 lives.
"This is a major development in the outbreak," Peter Salama, the WHO's Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response, told the BBC. "We have urban Ebola, which is a very different animal from rural Ebola. The potential for an explosive increase in cases is now there."
That's largely because Mbandaka is a major transport hub along the Congo River, Salama explained. It's nearly a straight line north from the DRC city of Kinshasa, with 10 million residents, and the river allows easy transportation to capital cities in surrounding Africa countries, including Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic.
The Mbandaka case is one of 44 confirmed, suspected, or probable cases of Ebola detected by health officials as of May 15, according to the WHO. Twenty-three of those people have died. It's the ninth outbreak to have hit the DRC since the discovery of Ebola in 1976. Last year, the area had an isolated outbreak of five cases, and a small outbreak of Ebola affected the DRC in 2014, but it was unrelated to the much larger one in West Africa.
Unlike the 2014 West Africa outbreak, though, the global response has been much more pronounced and rapid this time around. And there are now more tools available to combat the virus.
The WHO deployed 4,000 doses of its experimental Ebola vaccine to affected areas on Wednesday, and more shipments are expected. In limited trials conducted during the tail end of the 2014 outbreak, this vaccine was found to provide substantial protection against the most common type of Ebola that sickens people. That same type is the source of this current outbreak. The vaccine will be given to health care workers and individuals who might have come into contact with infected people, a strategy known as ring vaccination.
According to Doctors Without Borders, there are so far 514 people who fit this bill in both Mbandaka and the market town of Bikoro, where the majority of cases have occurred, and they're currently being monitored for potential Ebola symptoms.
Ebola typically spreads by close contact with bodily fluids like blood or semen from either infected animals or people. Its symptoms start as a flu-like illness but over a period of weeks can progress into internal bleeding and a dangerously high fever. The mortality rate, depending on the type of Ebola, varies from 25 per cent to nearly 90 per cent. There is currently no effective treatment available for the disease, though supportive care is thought to help.
The WHO and other partners are sending supplies like medical and disinfection kits to Mbandaka, as well as water treatment kits and drugs to treat Ebola symptoms like painkillers and anti-anxiety medications. The WHO will also send 30 experts to conduct surveillance on the city; they will work together with local officials to trace and prevent any further cases.