Congo's Ebola outbreak has spread to a crossroads city of more than 1 million people in a troubling turn that marks the first time the vast, impoverished country has encountered the lethal virus in an urban area.
The World Health Organization was holding an experts' meeting Friday to determine whether the epidemic warrants being declared a global health emergency. The leading health agency said the public health risk is "very high" at the national level and poses a "high" regional risk. The Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo are close by.
The Ebola outbreak in the DRC has entered a "new phase" after it spread to a large city, Health Minister Oly Ilunga said on Wednesday.
Chief executive Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited the affected Bikoro area last weekend, saying he hoped for a "better way out" of the latest outbreak in DRC.
Ebola has twice made it to Congo's capital in the past and was rapidly stopped.
Ebola is a highly infectious virus that can cause fever and bleeding.
Moreover, WHO has deployed 4,000 experimental Ebola vaccines in DRC and more of the vaccines should reach DRC in the coming days. One challenge will be keeping the vaccine cold in a region with poor infrastructure and patchy electricity.
In this photo taken Saturday, May 12, health workers don protective clothing as they prepare to attend to suspected Ebola patients at Bikoro Hospital in Bikoro, Congo. The case in Mbandaka is only the third confirmed case of the current outbreak; 20 others are probable, and 21 are suspected, bringing the total of potential cases to 44.
"The remote location of the outbreak hampers both the information about the outbreak and interventions to control it", said Cyrus Shahpar, director of epidemic prevention at Resolve to Save Lives, a New York-based organization. It is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Mbandaka. It said that as of May 15, 527 contacts of Ebola cases and suspected cases had been identified and were being followed up. But "urban Ebola can result in an exponential increase in cases in a way that rural Ebola struggles to do".
Of the 45 reported cases, 25 people have died but so far only one death has been linked to Ebola, it said.
Ebola is lethal and highly contagious, which makes it hard to contain - especially in urban environments where people are mobile and come into more contact with others.
The agency said it was deploying around 30 experts to Mbandaka "to conduct surveillance in the city".
Amid fears of the outbreak spreading to neighboring countries, the United Nations migration agency said Friday it would support the deployment of Congolese health teams to 16 entry points along the nearby border with the Republic of Congo for infection control and prevention.