The arrival of the disease in Mbandaka, a bustling port city, is “a game changer,” Dr. Salama said, adding that “urban ebola is a very different animal to rural ebola.”
The arrival of Ebola in Mbandaka poses a risk beyond the city’s own population. Mbandaka sits on the Congo River, a highway for the movement of people and goods to the capital, Kinshasa, and a border with the Republic of Congo.
For the moment, the World Health Organization rates the risk of Ebola’s spreading to neighboring states as moderate and the risk of international transmission as low, Dr. Salama said. Border surveillance is being strengthened in the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, and more than a dozen countries in the region have started screening arrivals, he said.
In contrast to the sluggish response to the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone of 2014 to 2016, which claimed more than 11,000 lives, international health agencies are rapidly scaling up the expertise and resources to tackle the current outbreak.
Around 60 international health experts have been deployed to Congo, and another 40 are due in a matter of days, Dr. Salama said.
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders has opened treatment centers in the small town of Bikoro, close to the starting point of the outbreak and in Mbandaka. Medical teams have been deployed in the city and the province for the crucial task of tracing and mapping the location of anyone who has been in contact with those known or suspected of being infected. To date they have identified more than 400 contacts, Dr. Salama said.
That operation provides the basis for a vaccination campaign targeting front-line responders and those exposed to the disease. The goal is to encircle the outbreak. The World Health Organization shipped 4,000 doses of a newly developed Ebola vaccine to Kinshasa on Wednesday, and vaccination could start on Monday, Dr. Salama said.