WHO Says Progress Is Being Made Against The Ebola Outbreak, But Remains A Threat

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 6:28 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Officials from the World Health Organization say progress is being made against the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo. They add that the crisis remains a threat to the region. According to the WHO, 44 people have gotten sick in the northwest of DRC with what appears to be Ebola. Twenty-five of those people have died. And a new case popped up this week in a bustling city of more than a million people on the Congo River. That raises fears that the disease could potentially spread to other towns on the waterway. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, led a delegation earlier this week to the village of Bikoro at the center of this Ebola outbreak.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: And we were really encouraged by what we have seen on the ground.

BEAUBIEN: Speaking today at a press conference back in Geneva, Dr. Tedros said the response by Congolese health officials and international aid agencies has been swift and robust. In this incredibly remote part of the Congo, Ebola patients are being isolated. Teams of community members are being trained to track down people who had been in contact with the patients who've fallen ill, and more than 500 of these so-called contacts have already been identified.

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TEDROS: And this will help us, one, for case management and, second, for the vaccination that we are planning to start on Sunday.

BEAUBIEN: Four-thousand doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine have been shipped into Congo to try to help limit the spread of the virus. But Peter Salama, the WHO's deputy director general for emergencies, says getting the vaccine to the affected villages could be difficult.

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PETER SALAMA: We have been able to reach by helicopter Bikoro. We haven't yet been able to clear the landing strips in Ikobo. So the only way we've been able to get there is by motorcycle, and it's literally hours through the dirt tracks to get there.

BEAUBIEN: This is the first emerging outbreak where potentially thousands of doses of the vaccine will be dispensed. The plan now is to give it first to health care workers in Mbandaka, the city on the Congo River where a new case was identified this week. Then the vaccine will be given out around the epicenter in Bikoro. In the early days of the devastating West Africa outbreak, an Ebola vaccine wasn't even an option for public health officials.

JULIE FISCHER: We're definitely in a better position. We have tools that we didn't have in 2014.

BEAUBIEN: Julie Fischer is a research associate professor at Georgetown University. She works on emerging public health threats, particularly infectious diseases such as Ebola. Fischer says since the West Africa outbreak, there's been a lot of work to develop new drugs and vaccines for Ebola. But...

FISCHER: We have just as many challenges now in 2018 in actually deploying those tools. And so our toolbox is bigger, but some of the challenges in using them effectively - those haven't changed a lot.

BEAUBIEN: Peter Salama with the WHO says that's true for a drug called ZMapp, which has shown promise as a treatment for Ebola. But it needs to be given intravenously.

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SALAMA: Honestly speaking, it's very hard to imagine today without a lot of support that the facilities in Bikoro will be able to introduce intravenous infusions, which require a lot of monitoring immediately. They'll need a lot of support to deal with that sort of sophisticated therapeutics.

BEAUBIEN: But some other lessons from the 2014 outbreak like making sure patients stay well-hydrated and setting up specialized burial teams are being deployed as officials try to contain this outbreak in Congo. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.