DRC starts administering experimental Ebola vaccine

This week, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) began administering an experimental Ebola vaccine ‘rVSV-ZEBOV’ in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million, where four residents have been infected with the near-fatal disease that causes fever often leading to massive internal bleeding.

World Health Organisation (WHO) has already sent more than 7,500 doses to DRC. An extra 8,000 doses will be available in the coming days.

Initially, the vaccination drive will cover 600 people including medical staff and people who are in touch with suspected cases.

With good road, water and air connections and mobile people, Mbandaka is highly vulnerable to the spread of Ebola virus. Health officials’ efforts will be to prevent the virus from spreading beyond Mbandaka. If they fail, the virus may reach villages along the Congo River and reach Kinshasa, the capital city of 10 million, through its tributaries.

Seventeen cases of infections have been confirmed in the country and 27 people are suspected to have died from the disease, officials say. Over 50 confirmed or suspected cases are under observation.

This is the ninth Ebola outbreak in DRC in four decades. Previous outbreaks were confined to isolated areas and less worrisome.

This time, the first cases of Ebola were reported on May 8 from Bikoro in Equateur Province about 150 kilometres from Mbandaka.

Although the vaccine ‘rVSV-ZEBOV’ is still in the test stages, it proved effective in trials towards the end of the Ebola outbreak in three West African countries in 2013-15 that left more than 11,300 dead.

One big challenge facing the medical staff is keeping the vaccines in cold in a tropical country with poor infrastructure.

President Joseph Kabila’s cabinet on Saturday approved more than $4 million Ebola emergency fund. Health Minister Oly Ilunga has announced free health care for people infected with the virus, their relatives and other contacts.

The UN’s migration agency is helping DRC’s health ministry by sending disease-tracking experts to monitor travellers at 16 border points.

The executive of the EU is releasing $1.9 million to help tackle the outbreak. Most of the aid will go to WHO to provide logistics support.

In the meantime, five of DRC’s neighbours are on high alert and screening visitors arriving from DRC.