Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have now widened their focus on the fight against the Ebola epidemic to the remote areas in the country side.
An Ebola outbreak was declared in Bikoro, DRC on May 8 and a day later, the first WHO and Ministry of Health response team arrived in the provincial capital Mbandaka to begin setting up the specialized cold chain needed to store a vaccine.
By 11 May, teams had started to trace contacts of all active cases and WHO partners were setting up treatment centres in Bikoro. The next day, an air bridge was established to Bikoro and a mobile lab deployed to speed up testing for infection.
After 6 days into the response to the outbreak, the first batch of more than 4,000 doses of vaccine was on its way from Geneva to Kinshasa, marking the first time vaccines were available so early in a response.
As of 7 June, there were a total of 59 confirmed, probable and suspected Ebola cases, of which 27 people had died. A new case was confirmed on 6 June.
The WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom says “it’s far too early to declare victory, but the signals are positive and we are cautiously optimistic”.
“We have new weapons and together with the government and our partners, we have acted with urgency to save lives. We will remain vigilant until this outbreak is over,” he said.
Now, one month later, the focus has moved from urban areas to some of the most remote places on earth, according to a statement released by the World Health Organization (WHO) Geneva Office on Saturday.
The shift comes after a series of unprecedented actions that have led to cautious optimism about the effectiveness of the response.
The first phase of the response focused on protecting the town of Bikoro and the city of Mbandaka from a potentially exponential increase in cases, which could have threatened major cities in the country as well as its neighbours along the river.
“The next phase is all about expeditionary surveillance: teams of epidemiologists fanning out over hundreds of kilometers by motorcycles through the remote rainforests,” said Dr Peter Salama, Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response at WHO, who returned from his second mission to the country on June 8.
“They are working to find each case quickly, tracking the contacts and engaging the communities, including the indigenous population in and around the villages of Itipo and Iboko. We need to pursue the virus wherever it heads and remain agile, responsive and super focused.”
As the response in-country continues, WHO is supporting 9 countries bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo to scale up their national emergency preparedness and response capacities.
A plan finalized on 7 June outlines how these countries can review their readiness to respond, while identifying any gaps in their capabilities. WHO is working closely with the Ministries of Health and wider government stakeholders, and partners in these countries to put these measures in place.
To reinforce the response and support preparedness, Dr Tedros is traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Sunday, as well as to the Central African Republic, which is one of the most vulnerable neighbours.