The second most serious outbreak of Ebola in history comes in a large city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, while experts wonder if the reserves of an experimental vaccine will be sufficient to supply the demand in an epidemic that I have not seen the end.
Butembo, with more than one million inhabitants, reported its first cases of lethal hemorrhagic fever. This complicates efforts to contain the disease, already reduced by rebel attacks in other areas, making it almost impossible to track the virus in some isolated villages.
"We are very concerned about the epidemiological situation in the Butembo area," said John Johnson, coordinator of the Doctors Without Borders project in the city. The new cases are increasing rapidly in the eastern suburbs and in isolated and outlying districts, according to the NGO.
The outbreak declared on 1 August is the second most devastating after what has caused more than 11,300 deaths in West Africa a few years ago. Currently, there are 471 cases of Ebola, of which 423 are confirmed, including 225 deaths, the Congo Health Ministry said on Thursday.
Without the work of teams that have vaccinated more than 41,000 people to date, the outbreak could have caused more than 10,000 cases, the ministry added.
This is by far the largest test of the promising, yet experimental, vaccine against Ebola, owned by Merck Pharmaceutical. The company has 300,000 doses in stock and it takes several months to develop the drug.
"We are extremely concerned about the size of the vaccine stock," Peter Salama, the World Health Organization's emergency director, told STAT this week. 300,000 doses are not enough, since urban outbreaks are more common, he said.
Health workers and people close to people infected with Ebola receive the medication following a "circular vaccination" scheme, but in some cases it was offered to all residents of communities that are difficult to access. A WHO spokesman said vaccine shipments arrive almost every week to ensure delivery.