WHO: DR Congo Ebola has clear ‘potential to expand’

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An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has a clear “potential to expand”, World Health Organisation (WHO) warned yesterday, amid news three people infected with the deadly virus had fled a local hospital.

“We are on the epidemiological knife edge,” Peter Salama, in charge of emergency response at the WHO, told a special meeting on the outbreak that has killed 27 people.

“It could go either way over the next few weeks and we are working around the clock to make sure it (goes) in the right direction,” he told AFP after the meeting.

The agency issued a new toll, saying there had been 58 cases since early April, an increase of seven over figures issued on Tuesday and said it was actively following more than 600 contacts.

Ebola, a virus-caused haemorrhagic fever that spreads through contact with bodily fluids, is highly infectious and extremely lethal.

The current outbreak, which was officially declared on May 8, began in rural northwestern DRC in a remote location called Bikoro. So far seven cases have surfaced in Mbandaka, a city of around 1.2 million people that lies on the Congo River, acting as a transport hub to Brazzaville and Kinshasa downstream and to Bangui, upstream.

An urban case means that it can spread quickly,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told yesterday’s session during the agency’s annual World Health Assembly. The proximity of the outbreak to neighbouring countries, especially through the river connection, was a major concern, he said. “They are connected, they are very close, and … that makes the problem really serious,” he said.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported a worrying development yesterday that was eerily reminiscent of problems seen during the West Africa outbreak: three Ebola patients had fled a Mbandaka hospital since Sunday after their families demanded to take them to church.

Two of the patients later died, while the third returned to the centre in the city of Mbandaka. MSF, which supports the hospital in question, said it was important to understand that “forced hospitalisation” would not work. “The commitment of the patient” to being quarantined “is fundamental,” it said, highlighting the need for public awareness on how to halt the outbreak.

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