Experimental Ebola Vaccination Begins in Congo DRC as Risk Described “Very High”

World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Photo Credit VOA).

By TZ Business News Staff and Agencies.


Use of experimental Ebola vaccinations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is set to begin Monday, May 21, 2018 Reuters news agency has reported from Geneva.

The World Health Organization (WHO)  has described the risk of contracting the Ebola virus in Congo DRC as now “very high”,  according to a Chinese Television network CGTN report on Sunday, May 20, 2018.

The vaccination  shot, which was tested in Guinea in 2015 at the end of a vast Ebola outbreak in West Africa, is designed for use in a so-called “ring vaccination” approach, meaning that when a new Ebola case is diagnosed, all people who might have been in recent contact with them are traced and vaccinated to try and prevent the disease’s spread.

The United Nations Migration Agency,  IOM, is in the meantime focusing on population mobility mapping at border-crossings and in the entire affected areas of Bikoro, Iboko and Wangata in Equateur province. The agency is also conducting risk communication and sanitary control, according to Africa Press Organization (APO).

The World Health Organization has been given the go-ahead by officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo to import and use an experimental Ebola vaccine in the country, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

Reuters has quoted Tedros as telling repoerters:  “We have agreement, registration, plus import permit, everything formally agreed already…All is ready now to really use it.”

The vaccine, developed by Merck in 2016, has proven safe and effective in human trials, but it is still experimental as it does not yet have a license. It must be kept at -60 to -80 degrees Celsius (-76°F to -112°F), creating huge logistical challenges.

The WHO said earlier that the Democratic Republic of Congo had reported 39 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of Ebola between April 4 and May 13, including 19 deaths.  It said 393 people who identified as contacts of Ebola patients were being followed up.

Tedros travelled to Congo and flew to the affected remote area still only accessible by motorbike or helicopter, where the deadly hemorrhagic disease has broken out.

“Being there is very, very important. If a general cannot be with its troops in the front line it’s not a general,” Reuters quotes Tedros as saying.  “And the second thing is, associated with Ebola there is stigma. We have to go and show that that should really stop. And if there is risk, my life is not better than anyone.”

He praised the Congolese government, including President Joseph Kabila whom he met during his trip.

Information about the outbreak in Bikoro, Iboko and Wangata in Equateur province was still limited, the WHO said, but at present the outbreak does not meet the criteria for declaring a “public health event of international concern”, which would trigger the formation of an emergency WHO committee.

Over the past few days, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has raced to support the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Congolese Ministry of Health in addressing the needs of communities affected by the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). IOM is focusing on population mobility mapping at border-crossings and in the affected province, as well as risk communication and sanitary control.

DRC’s Ministry of Health declared an Ebola outbreak a week ago (08/05), reporting 21 suspected cases including 17 deaths in the Ikoko Impenge Health Area of Bikoro Health Zone, located in the Equateur Province. Since then, the number of suspected cases and deaths has grown.

Equateur Province has a population of approximately 2.5 million people spread across an area of over 100,000 square kilometres. The remote Bikoro Health Zone is extremely difficult for the humanitarian community to access, with limited communication and transport infrastructure. The region shares borders with the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. People are continuously moving across these borders both by land and through the Congo River, which puts a great importance on the prevention and control of Ebola.

“Communicable diseases like Ebola know no borders,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, IOM DRC Chief of Mission. “As with last year’s outbreak, IOM is committed to supporting DRC’s Ministry of Health and its National Programme of Hygiene at Borders to complete population mobility mapping, improve sanitary controls and carry out risk communications at border-crossings and in affected areas.” Chauzy added, “Considering the risk of cross-border transmission, it is also imperative that neighbouring countries enhance surveillance measures and prepare to detect, investigate and respond to potential Ebola cases.”

Population mobility mapping of the Bikoro Health Zone, neighbouring Health Zones and the whole Equateur Province carried out by IOM will help the humanitarian community know which locations are the busiest points that people travel through and should have health measures strengthened, including risk communication, active case finding or health screenings and setting up of infection prevention and control measures, among others.

IOM will also monitor flows at major border crossing points and congregation points to quantify cross-border and internal movements, and obtain the demographic and movement profiles of travellers. In addition, IOM will assist the facilitation of cross-border coordination and information sharing with neighbouring countries to ensure surveillance and operational readiness for early detection, investigation and response to potential cases of Ebola.

IOM will communicate with international travellers, internal travellers and host communities about Ebola prevention, detection and response. These risk communications will be carried out at priority locations with heavy population movements, as identified through IOM’s population mobility mapping, which will also map the various languages used in each location.

IOM will also set up infection prevention and control measures at priority border crossings, travel routes and congregation points, in similar areas to those in which IOM will be communicating about health risks. A referral mechanism is being developed and will be used to help sick travellers.

With a proven record in responding to Ebola crises, IOM is appealing to donors for USD 500,000 to carry out these surveillance, health screening, risk communications and infection prevention and control activities, as well as population mobility mapping and cross-border coordination.

During the previous outbreak in the DRC’s Bas-Uele Province in 2017, IOM trained and equipped 25 Congolese border health officials on integrated disease surveillance, risk communication and outbreak management. They were then deployed to the epi-centre of the outbreak and to nearby border posts to strengthen surveillance, health screening and disinfection and risk communication. IOM also conducted flow monitoring at 13 key intervention sites.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, IOM supported the health response at border areas and crossings and set up Ebola Treatment Units.

The UK Government has been the first EU country to offer support.  The UK Government issued a statement saying they were had pledged financial support and were working with the government of DRC and World Health Organization (WHO) to monitor the situation and be ready to act quickly to tackle the spread of the disease.

The UK’s International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said in a statement: “The Ebola epidemic in 2014 highlighted that to save lives we need to act quickly to stop the spread of this disease.

“We’re well-practiced in responding to disease outbreaks, and are coordinating across government to support the WHO in their leadership of the response. Vaccines have been stockpiled, we have built research and monitoring capacity, and the Rapid Support Team of health experts stand ready to be deployed if needed.

“It is vital we are ready to respond rapidly when outbreaks are detected, which is why the UK is the second largest contributor to the WHO’s Contingency Fund for Emergencies, from which $1 million has already been mobilised to respond to this outbreak. We also work to strengthen health systems in high-risk countries such as DRC, so that they can better detect and tackle disease outbreaks when they arise.

“DFID and Wellcome jointly fund a research initiative on epidemic preparedness. Today, DFID is making available £1 million from this programme to support the rapid response, in addition to a further £2 million being made available by Wellcome.

“DFID has worked with Wellcome to develop a safe vaccine for Ebola which is currently stockpiled, ready for use, by the Global Vaccines Alliance, GAVI – to which we are a major contributor. The UK Public Health Rapid Support Team is also on standby ready to be deployed to support the response, if required,” the UK Government said in the statement.

Congo DRC has experienced several Ebola outbreaks since 1976, and the country is familiar with managing the disease.