GENEVA (Reuters) – An Ebola outbreak in Congo has been confirmed as the Zaire strain of the virus and vaccinations of health workers may start as early as Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.
In the latest outbreak, declared last week, 43 people are believed to have been infected in North Kivu province, including 33 who have died, the U.N. health agency said.
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.
“We can start using rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine as early as tomorrow,” he said in a tweet.
The experimental vaccine, which is manufactured by Merck, proved successful during its first wide-scale usage against the outbreak of Zaire virus in Equateur Province that began in April and was declared over on July 24.
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 suspect cases have been identified for monitoring, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. The virus causes haemorrhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhoea 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.
Eastern Congo is a tinderbox of conflicts over land and ethnicity stoked by decades of on-off war and this could hamper efforts to contain the virus. A U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO is assessing the situation and has sent ‘security-enhanced vehicles’ for possible use in the vaccination programme, he said.
Health workers were setting up refrigerators on Monday to keep the Ebola vaccine cool, the health ministry said. More than 3,000 doses remain in stock in the capital Kinshasa, allowing authorities to deploy them quickly to affected areas near the Ugandan border.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams and David Stamp)