GENEVA (Reuters) – An Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo has been confirmed as the Zaire strain of the virus, and vaccinations will start on Wednesday, health officials said.
In the latest outbreak, declared last week, 43 people are believed to have been infected in North Kivu province, including 36 who have died, Congo’s health ministry said on Tuesday.
Forty-six other suspected cases are being investigated, including 25 in Beni, a trading hub of several hundred thousand people, the ministry said in a statement.
Peter Salama, WHO deputy director for emergency preparedness and response, said analysis of genetic sequencing showed it was a new outbreak – separate from the one 2,500 km (1,500 miles) away in the northwest that ended less than two weeks ago after killing 33 – but the same strain.
Oly Ilunga, Congo’s health minister, said in a tweet that an ethics board had approved starting vaccinations on Wednesday. The experimental vaccine, which is manufactured by Merck, proved successful during its first wide-scale usage against the previous outbreak in Equateur Province.
The virus, believed to be carried long distances by bats, poses a high regional risk, WHO has said, noting that Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan share borders with eastern Congo.
About 900 contacts of confirmed or suspected cases have been identified for monitoring, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. The virus causes hemorrhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhea and is spread through direct contact with body fluids.
“Vaccination is expected to start this week and most likely it will start with health workers and responders and then move on to contacts and contacts of contacts,” Jasarevic told a Geneva briefing earlier on Tuesday.
More than 3,000 doses remain in stock in the capital Kinshasa, allowing authorities to deploy them quickly to affected areas.
But they face serious security challenges in eastern Congo, a tinderbox of conflicts over land and ethnicity stoked by decades of on-off war.
Local authorities announced on Tuesday that 14 bodies had been discovered in the town of Tubameme, about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the epicenter of the outbreak in the town of Mangina. Activists in the area said they had been kidnapped by Ugandan Islamist rebels last week.
About 1,000 civilians have been killed by armed groups and state forces around Beni in a wave of massacres since late 2014, although the immediate area around Mangina has been largely spared.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO is assessing the situation and has sent ‘security-enhanced vehicles’ for possible use in the vaccination program, Jasarevic said.