Public health officials warned this week that their efforts to combat an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus are being hampered by violence in an eastern province of Congo.
Authorities said they have been forced to limit their efforts to contain the virus after attacks by a major armed rebel group in the region killed nearly two dozen people in a city at the heart of the outbreak.
“We’ve seen an increased frequency and increased severity of attacks by armed opposition groups in recent weeks,” said Peter Salama, deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response at the World Health Organization (WHO). “Our operations are in effect suspended.”
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, Salama said the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group that has fought the central government for more than two decades, had launched at least seven attacks over the past month in Beni, a city in the northeastern part of the country. The most severe attack killed at least 21 people in the heart of the city, as rebels targeted civilians.
The World Health Organization and partner groups who are in North Kivu were forced to shutter their operations as residents held several days of mourning.
The outbreak began in late July in North Kivu province, the largest province in Congo outside of the capital Kinshasa. It spread from a small village to Beni, home to about a quarter-million people, and then to the much larger regional trading capital Butembo.
Officials at the Congolese Health Ministry said Friday they had identified a new cluster of Ebola virus in Tchomia, a village on Lake Albert, a major border crossing between Uganda and Congo. Health officials have found two confirmed cases and four potential cases there.
One woman, said to have attended a funeral of a victim of the Ebola virus before returning to her home village, has died, according to officials.
Salama said progress against the virus has been promising. While an average of about 40 new cases a week were emerging in the early days of the outbreak, that average is now down to about 10 new cases a week.
All told, health officials have identified 157 confirmed and probable cases of Ebola in the two provinces where it is present. The outbreak has killed 102 people, and 45 others survived and have been released, according to the Congolese Health Ministry.
Health officials are keeping an eye on 1,660 people who had come into contact with an Ebola patient, according to the World Health Organization.
Those people, who are most likely to become ill, keep in daily contact with health officials in the event they do develop the disease, a practice known as contact tracing.
The virus’s presence near an international border and the ongoing violence in Beni have raised fears that the global response may not be enough to contain the outbreak. The WHO has been preparing governments in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi for the possibility that Ebola might cross their borders.
“The response at this stage is at a critical juncture,” Salama said.
WHO said it had screened nearly 6 million people at 45 crossing points along Congo’s borders with its neighbors.
This is the second outbreak of the Ebola virus in which responders have been able to use a vaccine, developed by Merck in the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people. So far, health officials have vaccinated more than 12,200 people against the Ebola virus.
In a sign of how quickly health officials are deploying the vaccine, the Health Ministry said 177 people in Tchomia had been vaccinated through Friday, just days after the first case had been identified.