The second-largest Ebola outbreak in history has spread to a major city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as health experts worry whether the stock of an experimental vaccine will stand up to the demands of an epidemic with no end in sight.
Butembo, with more than 1 million residents, is now reporting cases of the deadly hemorrhagic fever. That complicates Ebola containment work already challenged by rebel attacks elsewhere that have made tracking the virus almost impossible in some isolated villages.
"We are very concerned by the epidemiological situation in the Butembo area," said John Johnson, project coordinator with Medecins Sans Frontieres in the city. New cases are increasing quickly in the eastern suburbs and outlying, isolated districts, the medical charity said.
The outbreak declared on August 1 is now second only to the devastating West Africa outbreak that killed more than 11 300 people a few years ago. There are currently 471 Ebola cases, of which 423 are confirmed, including 225 confirmed deaths, DRC's health ministry said late Thursday.
Without the teams that have vaccinated more than 41 000 people so far, this outbreak could have already seen more than 10 000 Ebola cases, the health ministry said.
The Ebola virus is spread via bodily fluids of those infected, including the dead.
The outbreak "remains serious and unpredictable," the World Health Organization said in an assessment released Wednesday. Nine health zones have reported new cases in the last week, and some have been unrelated to known victims, meaning that gaps in tracking remain in a region with a dense, highly mobile population.
Thousands of people have been organized by Red Cross societies and others to go house-to-house dispelling rumors and checking on possible contacts of victims.
Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, Africa regional director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, joined one awareness campaign in the outbreak's epicenter, Beni, this week.
The head of one family thanked her for the face-to-face contact, saying he didn't even have a radio and didn't understand what was happening. "Ignorance is the enemy," another resident said.
Given the years of conflict in eastern Congo, it's essential that households trust why the health workers are there, Nafo-Traore told the AP.
While she called the insecurity "very worrying," she said that with new tools at hand, including vaccines, "there is great hope."