WHO to test vaccine in Ebola-hit DR Congo

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The World Health Organization on Thursday said that a vaccine for the Ebola virus might soon be tested in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of Congo which has been recently hit by an outbreak of the virus.

WHO stated that there is no licensed vaccine for Ebola, but a promising candidate vaccine could be gotten within a matter of days if the government of DR Congo gives its approval.

During a conference call, Peter Salama, the agency’s health emergencies Chief, told reporters all preparations are in place for the trial of the vaccine.

Two cases of the virus have been confirmed in a laboratory while 18 others suspected to have contracted the virus are in Bas-Uele, a province near the Central African Republic.

DR Congo has suffered several Ebola outbreaks. The recent outbreak of the disease in the country is the eighth to date.

DR Congo declared an outbreak of the highly contagious disease on the 12th of May.

The first known case: a 39-year-old man died on the way to the hospital in Likati on April 22, suffering from fever, vomiting and bleeding symptoms.

The person who took care of him and the motorcycle driver transporting him also died, Peter Salama said.

This is the first outbreak of Ebola, which spreads by contact with bodily fluids, since the West African epidemic that ended in January last year after making nearly 29,000 people ill and killing over 11,300.

During that epidemic, a vaccine made by US pharmaceutical giant Merck was successfully tested in hard-hit Guinea.

Just like the Guinea test, the WHO would like to do a ring-trial in DR Congo. This means that the vaccine would be given to all the people who have had contact with known cases, as well as those who have had contact with those people. The vaccine would also be given to health workers.

Peter Salama stated that asides waiting for an official invitation from Kinshasa, there are several other challenges hindering the test of the vaccine.

For starters, the vaccine needs to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit), which could be more than tricky in Likati, which is 1,300 kilometres (900 miles) from the capital.

“As you can imagine, in an area without telecommunications, without road access, without large-scale electrification, this is going to be an enormous challenge.”

He however stated that huge efforts were in place to overcome the challenges.

The WHO has faced crushing criticism for taking too long to sound a global alarm and scale up its response to the epidemic that ended last year and hence emphasised its quick response since DR Congo declared an outbreak of the Ebola disease.

Airplanes and helicopters are being used to bring in health teams, who have already managed to track down more than 400 people who have had contact with the known cases.

An Ebola treatment centre has also been set up at the Likati hospital and teams are working on deploying a mobile laboratory to help speed up diagnoses, Salama said.

The WHO remains hopeful that Kinshasa can rapidly bring the outbreak under control, the agency’s regional Chief for Africa said during the conference call.

“Congo has extensive experience in… controlling Ebola outbreaks,” she said.

Salama also said the risk of the outbreak spreading internationally was low. He however added that the Ebola virus disease should not be underestimated, hence a high level of vigilance should be maintained.

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Joan Obasi is a journalism intern working with HealthNewsNG.com in Lagos, Nigeria. She covers developments in the healthcare sector. She can be reached via joan@healthnewsng.com

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