The second largest eruption in history has spread to a large city in eastern Congo because health experts worry whether the stock of experimental vaccine will cope with the requirements of an epidemic that has no end.
Buteham, with more than 1 million inhabitants, reported cases of lethal haemorrhagic fever. This complicates the work of Ebola, which is already triggered by rebel attacks everywhere that have made tracking of the virus virtually impossible in some isolated villages.
"We are very concerned about the epidemic situation in the Buteham area," said John Johnson, coordinator of the Doctors Without Borders project in the city. New cases are rising rapidly in eastern suburbs and remote isolated quarters, the medical charity said.
The launch, announced on 1 August, is now only secondary to the devastating outbreak in West Africa, where more than 11,300 people were killed a few years ago. There are currently 471 cases of Ebola, of which 423 are confirmed, including 225 confirmed deaths, the health ministry said in Congo late on Thursday.
Without the teams that have so far vaccinated more than 41,000 people, this outbreak may have seen more than 10,000 Ebola cases, the health ministry said.
This is the largest deployment of the promising but still experimental Ebola vaccine, which is owned by Merck. The company maintains a stock of 300,000 doses and their preparation takes months.
"We are extremely concerned about the amount of vaccine stocks," said WHO Director Dr. Peter Salamah at the MED Center in an interview this week, saying that 300,000 doses are not enough as city epidemic outbreaks become more frequent.
Healthcare workers, Ebola victims' contacts and their contacts received the vaccine under a "ring vaccination" approach, but in some cases all residents of hard-to-reach communities were offered. The prospect of mass vaccination in a big city like Butebbo raised concerns. Salamah called the "extremely impractical" approach.
A WHO spokeswoman said that deliveries of doses arrive almost every week to ensure sufficient delivery for the sprayed vaccination. "So far, there have been no breaks in vaccine delivery," Tricik Jasarevic said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Merk is actively working to ensure that there will be enough doses to meet the potential demand."
This Ebola outbreak is like no other, with lethal attacks by rebel groups that force conservative work to stop for days at a time. Some concerned locals have opposed the vaccinations or the safe burial of Ebola victims as health workers struggle with disinformation in an area that has never met the virus.
"Limited population" regularly destroys medical equipment and attacks workers, said Health Minister Dr. Olli Ilunga Kalenga told reporters on Wednesday.
The Ebola virus spreads through body fluids to the infected, including the dead.
The outbreak "remains serious and unpredictable," the World Health Organization said in a Wednesday assessment. Nine health zones have reported new cases in the last week and some are not related to known victims, which means that tracking gaps remain in a region with a dense, highly mobile population.
Thousands of people are organized by the Red Cross societies and others to disagree with each other and check the possible contacts of the victims.
Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, Regional Director of Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, joined this campaign to raise awareness at the epicenter of the epidemic, Benny.
The head of a family thanks her face-to-face for contact, saying she does not even have a radio and does not understand what's going on. "Ignorance is an enemy," another resident said.
Given the years of conflict in the eastern coast of Congo, it is essential for households to trust health workers, Nafro-Treore told the AP.
Although she called the uncertainty "very worrying," she said that with new hand tools, including vaccines, "there is a lot of hope".