Ebola virus reaches Congolese city of Goma

Ebola virus reaches Congolese city of Goma

Officials say patient taken to treatment centre and bus passengers have been traced

The Ebola virus has reached the Congolese city of Goma, home to 2 million people and a transport hub for swath of central Africa, for the first time since an epidemic began in the country nearly a year ago.

The Congolese health ministry said a man who had arrived in the regional centre on Sunday had been quickly transported to an Ebola treatment centre.

Authorities said they had tracked down all the passengers on the bus the man had taken to Goma from Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by the disease.

“Because of the speed with which the patient was identified and isolated, and the identification of all the other bus passengers coming from Butembo, the risk of it spreading in the rest of the city of Goma is small,” the health ministry said in a statement.

The virus has killed more than 1,600 people in Congo and two others who returned home across the border to neighbouring Uganda. About 700 people have recovered from infections.

The latest official statistics list a total of 2,489 cases, of which 2,395 are confirmed. Twelve new cases were confirmed over the weekend and there were 10 deaths.

The confirmed case announced late on Sunday in eastern Congo involves a pastor who became ill last Tuesday and sought treatment at a registered health centre. It is thought he was receiving care from a nurse at his accommodation in Butembo but decided to leave the city, and arrived at a health centre in Goma on Sunday showing symptoms of Ebola.

The 46-year-old did not show signs of illness at three medical checkpoints on the 18-hour journey, though he gave different names, indicating a desire to hide his identity, officials said. He has now been sent back to Butembo for further care.

While in Butembo, the pastor held regular services in seven churches, during which he laid his hands on worshippers, including people who were ill, the health ministry said.

Officials called on local communities to take precautions such as washing their hands and avoiding physical contact with anyone suspected of contamination with the virus.

The number of people moving around or through the zone worst hit by Ebola has been a big challenge for health services. Another problem has been attacks against health workers and treatment facilities. On Monday the health ministry said two Ebola awareness workers had been killed in the affected zone.

Eastern Congo is home to a myriad of armed groups, and Mai Mai militia fighters are active near the hardest-hit towns. Health teams have been unable to access violent areas to vaccinate people at risk of infection and to bring infected patients into isolation.

At other times the violence against health teams has come from residents who do not want their loved ones taken to treatment centres or buried in accordance with guidelines aimed at reducing Ebola transmission.

Health experts have long feared that the disease could make its way to Goma, which is located on the Rwandan border and is traversed by large numbers of travellers from across a vast area.

The health ministries in Congo’s neighbours have been preparing for months for the possibility of cases, and frontline health workers have been vaccinated.

While the experimental vaccine is believed to have saved countless lives, not all Congolese people have accepted it. Some falsely believe that the vaccine is what is making people sick, in part because people can still develop the disease after getting the shot if they already had been infected.

Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of the Ebola virus and a leading authority on the outbreaks since, has called for “improved coordination, high-level political support, and urgent unified action” in the handling of the DRC epidemic.

Speaking ahead of a high level United Nations and WHO meeting in Geneva, he warned that “there is no evidence that the end of this devastating epidemic is in sight. Rather, there is a real risk that this epidemic could further expand”, as illustrated in the case of the pastor travelling to Goma.

Piot, head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which is supporting the efforts in DRC to control the virus, said they much regretted the decision of the health minister there to rule out the use of a second vaccine in north Kivu, which has been recommended by WHO.

“It is hard to understand why such a decision was taken, going so far as to ban any research on investigational Ebola vaccines in the country during this outbreak,” he said. “The DRC has been a leader in innovation during Ebola outbreaks, and should remain at the forefront of research and innovation in this area.”

Jason Burke y Sarah Boseley

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