WHO raises Congo’s Ebola risk after confirming a case in a major city
The risk for neighbouring countries has also been raised, as the city of Mbandaka is on major transport routes
Geneva — The World Health Organisation has raised its assessment of the public health risk that the Democratic Republic of Congo faces from Ebola.
DRC now faces a "very high" risk, the WHO said, after the disease was confirmed in one patient in a major city — raising the assessment from "high" previously.
The risk to countries in the region has been raised to "high" from "moderate", but the global risk remains "low".
The reassessment came after the first confirmed case in Mbandaka, a city of about 1.5-million people.
Previous reports of the disease had all been in remote areas where Ebola might spread more slowly.
"The confirmed case in Mbandaka, a large urban centre located on major national and international river, road and domestic air routes, increases the risk of spread within DRC and to neighbouring countries," the WHO said.
WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, Peter Salama, had told reporters on Thursday that the risk assessment was being reviewed.
"We’re certainly not trying to cause any panic in the national or international community," he said.
"What we’re saying though is that urban Ebola is a very different phenomenon to rural Ebola because we know that people in urban areas can have far more contacts, so that means that urban Ebola can result in an exponential increase in cases in a way that rural Ebola struggles to do."
Later on Friday, the WHO will convene an emergency committee of experts to advise on the international response to the outbreak, and decide whether it constitutes a "public health emergency of international concern".
The nightmare scenario is an outbreak in Kinshasa, a crowded city where millions live in unsanitary slums not connected to a sewer system.
The WHO said there had been 21 suspected, 20 probable and three confirmed cases of Ebola between April 4 and May 15, a total of 44 cases, including 15 deaths.
Mbandaka had three suspected cases in addition to the confirmed case.
The WHO is sending 7,540 doses of an experimental vaccine to try to stop the outbreak in its tracks, and 4,300 doses have already arrived in Kinshasa.
It will be used to protect health workers and "rings" of contacts around each case.
The vaccine supplies would be enough to vaccinate 50 rings of 150 people, the WHO said.
By Tuesday, 527 contacts had been identified and were being followed up and monitored, it said.